Fort Worth — In 1908, Kenneth Grahame published The Wind in the Willows, a children’s novel that gently (VERY gently) satirized a particularly rarified section of the British class system: the country folk and landed gentry of the Thames Valley, who were portrayed as various members of the local fauna. The novel is, in several fundamental ways, not quite enough—not sweet enough to be Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, not biting enough in its satire to be an Animal Farm, or something else equally political. Some authors reach universality through specificity; the lovingly detailed specifics Grahame lays out serve rather to distance a modern audience than to bring it closer to the material.
That being said, it remains beloved in Britain (although a star-studded West End musical adaptation in 2016 got lukewarm reviews at best), and a funny story about animals dressed as people racing cars certainly maintains its appeal for children—adaptations for child audiences abound. Where Hip Pocket Theatre goes astray with its production of John Murphy’s adaptation (he also directs the piece) is less in its execution than in the decision to produce it as a straight piece for an adult audience. Without some spin or originality, the piece is competent, but tepid.
Murphy’s adaptation follows the common approach of most productions in excising some of the meandering side adventures to focus on the novel’s main action. Mole (Shelby Griffin), fed up with his yearly spring cleaning and looking for a little adventure, runs into the more worldly Rat (Jeff Stanfield), who’s enjoying a lazy afternoon on the river. The two become fast friends, and Rat spins tales to Mole about the (mis)adventures of his friend, the exuberant Toad of Toad Hall (Shawn Gann). Toad, an animal with significantly more wealth than sense, is constantly succumbing to—and just as quickly abandoning—new fads, like rowing, punting, and, as Rat and Mole discover when visiting him, horse-drawn caravans. But when a shiny red motor car drives Toad and his new caravan off the road, he discovers his newest obsession. Despite the objections of Rat, Mole, and the elderly Badger (Thad Isbell), Toad crashes car after car, eventually running afoul of the law and being sentenced to 20 years in prison. He eventually escapes, with the help of the kindly gaoler’s daughter (Rebo Hill), and upon returning home discovers that Toad Hall has been occupied by a nasty bunch of local weasels (Paul Heyduck, Rebo Hill, Damek Salazar, and Elysia Worcester). Toad must rally his friends and chase off these interlopers from his ancestral home.
The show’s cast is above all else enthusiastic and frequently charming. Shelby Griffin’s Mole is a particular standout, both for her comedic flair and subtle physicality. Shawn Gann throws himself into the part of Toad with gusto, leaning into the character’s ridiculousness, but bringing a little more shrewdness to the character than one might expect. Thad Isbell’s Texas twang works surprisingly well for the magisterial Badger—it could almost be an English dialect if you squint at it hard enough. The actors portraying the weasels—along with a few other characters each—do a nice job differentiating their characters from one another, and show some talent with the show’s occasional choreographed dance sequences (credit to actress Worcester for the choreography). It’s the cast’s energy that carries the piece over the finish line, but there are some noticeable lags in the action, especially in the sequence following Toad’s escape from prison and their assault on Toad Hall. But all the good will they generate can’t overcome the essential problem with the piece—it’s just not that interesting for an adult audience.
The set design (by James Maynard) is minimal, with a few architectural details to suggest the grandeur of Toad Hall. Hip Pocket’s multi-level stage offers some interesting opportunities in staging the action—a platform on stage right stands in nicely as a cozy den for Badger, with a pot-bellied stove and comfy armchair, and a balcony above the stage made the animal’s final attack on the dastardly weasels a bit more exciting. The costuming, also by Maynard, is fairly standard in its approach—Edwardian with some animal-esque flourishes, though the weasels’ costumes, a sort of gypsy-circus mashup topped with fezzes, were a bit more visually interesting.
Now in its 42nd season, Hip Pocket Theatre remains a funky little hidden gem on the Fort Worth scene, known for daring new works and alternative sensibilities. Hopefully the season’s next production will hew closer to the theater’s more out-there aesthetic.