Somewhere in the mad rush to ensure that our children will know more than we did at their age--even if they don't yet have a clue what to do with all that knowledge--what often gets overlooked is an idea as old as humanity itself: The encouragement of a child's creative development from within is more valuable than any amount of artificially imposed intelligence. Even Jerry Falwell evidently knows that kids who learn to think for themselves at an early age stand a better chance of keeping an open mind later in life.
In fact, 2,500 years before a purse-toting Tinky Winky appeared in Teletubby land and uttered a few harmless nonsense syllables, a former Greek slave named Aesop came up with a series of animal-based fables illustrating life's simple lessons. One of the most enduring tales, Androcles and the Lion, has been adapted by Aurand Harris as a commedia dell'arte version of the play, with music composed by Irwin Appel.
While the Denver Children's Theatre's production occasionally proves more bombastic than gently instructive, director Steve Wilson's high-energy approach adequately conveys the importance of accepting others for who they are instead of who we'd like them to be. The hour-long show at the Mizel Family Cultural Arts Center also illustrates the benefits of making a friend out of a potential enemy, as exemplified by the behavior of Androcles (Nitzan Sitzer), a runaway slave who, during a chance encounter in the forest, mercifully extracts a thorn from the paw of a lion (Carla Kaiser). His random act of kindness pays off later when Androcles and the fearsome king of beasts are pitted against each other by Androcles's embittered master, Pantalone (McPherson Horle), and a vainglorious Captain (Jared Lyn). Along the way, we're also introduced to Lelio (a wide-eyed Chad Hoeppner), a lovesick young man who practically swoons each time he sees his beloved, Isabella (a silver-throated Penny Alfrey). Eventually, Androcles becomes his own master when he learns that it's not worth betraying a friend just to save his own skin.
All of the performers display their proficiency with such commedia techniques as pratfalls, slapstick routines and old-fashioned sight gags. Sitzer, in particular, incorporates each of his exaggerated gestures, including perfectly executed leaps and countless leg kicks, into a winning portrayal that is at once enjoyable and illuminating (credit Nicholas Sugar with the sprightly choreography). For instance, when Androcles is forced to ferry messages between the two lovers' balconies--scrolls clenched between his teeth and a ladder in both hands--Sitzer remains true to his character's task while managing to flash a few commedia-style takes of mock anguish in our direction, a choice that makes his character the most identifiable and watchable of the lot.
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Sometimes, though, the actors rely too heavily on the elements of physical comedy or over-project their lines at the expense of their characters' believability. Many of Horle's curmudgeonly antics, for example, are overdone to the point that much of Pantalone's dialogue is difficult to understand. Furthermore, director Wilson sometimes fails to engage the audience during several of the story's decision-making moments. For instance, why not ask theatergoers, as the lion does late in the play, to voice their opinion when Androcles is faced with the choice of abandoning the wounded animal or helping her? Performers would also connect better with spectators if they tried to influence the placement of a few key sound effects, such as when Androcles attempts in vain to stop the (recorded) roar of a bloodthirsty Colosseum crowd or when romantic melodies are supposed to "sing in the trees" during one of the love scenes. A look by any of the performers in the direction of the sound booth, coupled with an unmistakable cutoff gesture or frantic signal to roll the tape, would heighten everyone's interest while remaining true to the story.
All in all, however, the visually captivating show (Lamecia Landrum fashioned the tasteful costumes, and Charles Dean Packard designed the delightfully functional set) serves as a testament to what can be achieved when artistry is championed over sound and fury and the imagination is permitted to triumph over the obvious--lessons that should serve as even brighter beacons to Wilson and company next time around.
Androcles and the Lion, presented by the Denver Children's Theatre, Sunday afternoons through May 6 at the Mizel Family Cultural Arts Center, 350 South Dahlia Street, 303-316-6360.