Soulpepper brings new life to Dennis Lee's poems in a stage adaptation of Alligator Pie.
Soulpepper’s reputation for producing classical theatre has more often than not kept the kiddos at home, but a new creation, from five plucky members of the company, is a bright, noisy, and fun-filled invitation for theatregoers young and old—and one that still fits within the company’s mandate. You can give away the green grass, you can give away the sky, but you can’t say that Alligator Pie doesn’t qualify as a “classic.”
With a background in music, Soulpepper actor and sound designer Mike Ross is at the helm of this hour-long stage performance of a selection of children’s poems by Dennis Lee, Toronto’s first poet laureate. Joined by Ken Mackenzie, Gregory Prest, Ins Choi, Raquel Duffy, and a whole lot of boxes filled with costumes, musical instruments, plastic tubes, staplers, umbrellas, bubble wrap, and more (otherwise known as a kid’s heaven), Ross’s music gives new life to both the absurdity and the gravity in Lee’s words. The interpretation is often ingenious.
Out of their various tickle trunks of tools and tricks, the cast is able to turn “The Bratty Brother” into a somber blues-y ballad delivered with gravitas by Duffy. “Tricking” becomes a hip-hop performance by Choi in an Afro wig and giant gold sunglasses, as he leans back in his rolly chair like a lowrider. “I Put a Penny in my Purse” is transformed into an anguished tango performed by Prest on the accordion, accompanied by the rest of the cast playing classroom supplies like the staplers, masking tape, a three-hole-punch. and scissors (which are cleverly introduced by naming the objects in French, likely helping the target audience with their dictées). The final song even gets a Joel Plaskett–like twang, and another incredible moment creates a melody out of plastic tubes of different lengths. Some equally stunning moments, like a declaration of friendship from Ross to Duffy, need no props at all.
It’s clear that the cast members spent their time on the individual pieces, making them clever enough for the parents and fun enough for the kids. The material is there, the talent is there, but what’s needed is some direction to tell us who these characters are and why they’re here, and to fill in some other missing pieces. Why do the characters enter from a trap door, never to use it again? What’s the purpose of the theatre-in-the-round style? Where’s the audience participation? Children’s theatre isn’t meant to be passively consumed. Ideally, it’s an experience in all senses of the word. Alligator Pie, as it is, is more of an intellectual take on a selection of children’s poems rather than a show with entertainment as its main goal.
Even so, Alligator Pie is a delightful array of music, magic, and mud (as Prest captivatingly observes, like a scientist) that will, hopefully, only become smoother and clearer when it returns to Soulpepper next year. So if you don’t get some Alligator Pie this time around, keep your green grass, keep your sky, and definitely don’t die. There will be a second helping soon enough, and it might be even sweeter.