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Holiday Magical

[whitespace] Wind in the Willows
Cheers to 'Wind': The 'Animal Farm'-like cast of SSC's 'Wind in the Willows' delights at UCSC.

SSC's 'The Wind in the Willows' is a fast-paced, whimsical ride to a magical place where the spirit of giving resides

By Sarah Phelan

IF YOU PLAN to take family and friends to only one show during the holiday season, then consider Shakespeare Santa Cruz's holiday production of Wind in the Willows--but book in advance, because shows sell out fast. This year's production of Kenneth Grahame's play, adapted for the stage by Paul Whitworth and directed by James Gale, was a full 30 minutes shorter than last year's show--and all the better for it. Fast-paced and loaded with slapstick, it sucked us in from the first moment, when a myopic Mole put his velvety snout to the air, enticed by the smells of spring to abandon his underground home for the magic of the riverbank.

J.E. Weiss' sumptuous set--replete with dappled river, gliding rowboat, mossy banks and spiral staircase leading up to Ratty's home beneath the roots of a willow tree--recreated the whimsical atmosphere of Grahame's tale in fabulous detail. And then there were the beautifully played animals: Rat (William Mark Hulings) with his picnic basket, wicker furniture and poetry-writing tendencies; the ever paw-wringing but headstrong Mole (Michael Faulkner); the playfully roly-poly Otter (Corey Saucier) and wise old Badger (James Gale). Together this quartet convinces us that rats pack picnics, moles topple out of rowboats and happiness is a mayfly droning just a jawsnap away.

But it was Brad DePlanche who stole the show as the vain and infinitely faddish Toad, filled with a near-fatal wanderlust the second he hears his first motor car go "poop-poop!" DePlanche had the audience giggling at every flick of his tongue and wiggle of his hip. His motor-car mime and his wonderfully silly slapstick sequences were priceless. Especially memorable scenes were his boxing match with the pugnacious Aunt (Jodi Dick), his boatride with an operatic Bargewoman (Lizz Hodgin)--nobody can deliver bargeside opera the way Hodgin can--and his slippery rescue from drowning by Rat.

Special mention to the ensemble of children who hopped like rabbits, swooped like swallows and weaseled like ... well, weasels--and acted like professionals throughout.

Devised by Grahame as a series of bedtime stories for his only child, Alistair, The Wind in the Willows shows not only an understanding of a child's world but also a subtle reflection of England's social structure. Grahame himself gave up his dream of studying at the prestigious Oxford University because of limited family funds. Instead, he pursued a career as a banker. Maybe his shortsighted Mole is a parody of the banker gone wild, and his wasteful Toad is a lampoon of every upper-class twit who ever walked England's green and pleasant land. But what makes this story timeless is its central concern with what constitutes home and friendship.

Speaking of home, this production was sponsored by Applied Materials of Santa Clara in recognition of the fact that 17 percent of SSC's audiences live in the Santa Clara County region and that a further 25,000 residents commute daily to the Bay Area. An arts-funding trend of the future, perhaps?

The only low point in the production was the intermission. Forced to wait in one of only two lines for hot cider and cookies, we were left without enough time to eat or drink. That was a shame, especially since most of the treats were provided by local business. Otherwise, the show was an out-and-out success.

The Wind in the Willows runs through Dec. 20. For info, call 459-2159 or check the Stage listings.

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From the December 17-23, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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