“Into the Burrow,” Alliance Theatre’s world premiere adaptation of Beatrix Potter’s picture books, digs deeper into its subject matter than one might expect for a children’s play. Here, the feud between the farmer Mr. McGregor and the wily Peter Rabbit unearths big questions: Whose land is that garden on, anyway? Is it OK to take from others when they’ve taken from us? Are all people at fault for the degradation of the Earth — even, perhaps, children?
In asking big questions, Into the Burrow takes its young audience more seriously than the Beatrix Potter books demand. But, created by Alliance Theatre’s immensely talented artists, it also delivers big on the magic that young audiences deserve. They’ll have so much fun, they’ll scarcely realize they’re chewing on issues that have confounded adults for thousands of years.
Potter, born into the British upper class in 1866, developed an early love for drawing the natural world. She managed to parlay that skill into a successful career as a writer and illustrator, unusual for a woman of the Victorian era. The Tale of Peter Rabbit is her best known, but Potter wrote more than 60 books, including 28 children’s books. Most of them feature whimsical animals partial to Victorian fashion, like the hedgehog Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and the frog Mr. Jeremy Fisher. In concert with this production, the High Museum of Art is hosting an exhibition of her work, “Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature,” which is well worth a visit before or after the show.
“Into the Burrow” takes “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” for its central plot, with Juan Carlos Unzueta in the starring role. Playwright Mark Valdez, who also directs, smartly weaves in some of Potter’s other characters, including the aforementioned Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (Pamela Gold) and Mr. Jeremy Fisher (Wesley Tunison), along with Mr. Alderman Ptolemy Tortoise (Jontavious Johnson), Benjamin Bunny (Kylie Gray Mask) and Squirrel Nutkin (Shelli Delgado). They are costumed magnificently by Garry Lennon, though the jaunty Victorianism of Potter’s drawings doesn’t quite come through. Best of all is Ptolemy Tortoise’s shell, which was very handsome and put to great use by Johnson.
The story takes place in Peter Rabbit’s burrow, an immersive, in-the-round set, beautifully designed by Kat Conley. When the animal friends leave the burrow on a daring escapade to steal produce from Mr. McGregor, the action shifts to a shadow puppet show visible on several illuminated screens. It’s a clever use of the space and gorgeously executed. Designed by Raymond Carr and inspired by traditional Chinese and Javan shadow puppetry, these are not sock puppets flopping behind a bedsheet but rather sharply stylized silhouettes verging on the uncanny. I was thrilled by their weirdness, another dash of sophistication unusual to children’s theater. The kids loved them, too — several said afterward that the puppet show was their favorite part.
“Into the Burrow” holds its own as a musical, with bright original songs by Christian Albright and Christian Magby, the duo behind Alliance Theatre’s “The Incredible Book Eating Boy,” and music direction and orchestrations by Imani Quiñones. Individual vocal talents are somewhat uneven, but the cast shines as a chorus, and Unzueta has enough singing chops alone to carry the show. A trio of live musicians adds depth and panache to the music, though I was less convinced by the decision to pass them off as Peter Rabbit’s siblings, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail. (A bass player in bunny ears acting like a bunny, it turns out, looks a lot like a bass player in bunny ears acting like a bass player.)
They make excellent musicians, however, and the real actors are excellent actors. Johnson and Delgado are standouts for their physicality, and Gold’s tap-dance number is a delight. Tunison makes great use of his jazzy number, and Mask keeps the energy high and the young audience cheering. Unzueta is fantastic as Peter Rabbit, filled with apple-cheeked enthusiasm that doesn’t pitch into cloying.
His suspicion of humans is warranted: As in Potter’s original tale, his father’s been killed and cooked into a pie by Mr. McGregor. That Valdez doesn’t shy away from such grim realities of rabbit life is part of what makes this such a sterling play. Children can be serious and considerate theater-goers, and “Into the Burrow” treats them as such. When Peter accuses the people in his burrow of being as dastardly as Mr. McGregor, who cuts down trees and bakes rabbits into pies, he’s asking a valid question: Are we all accountable for the harm that humans are doing to the planet? What can children do to help? For those answers, they’ll have to keep coming back to the theater.
“Into the Burrow”
Through Dec. 23. $10-$20. Alliance Theatre, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4600, alliancetheatre.org.
Rachel Garbus is a writer, editor and oral history maker in Atlanta. She’s a contributor at Atlanta magazine and the editor-in-chief of print for WUSSY Mag, which covers queer culture with a Southern lens. She performs improv and sketch comedy around town and has been known to pen the odd satire. She lives in North Druid Hills with her wife and her anxious dog.
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