Justin Weaks has always liked to entertain audiences. Growing up, he started his performance career in gymnastics. “I feel like gymnastics has its performance elements. You step onto an event and you are doing the event. It is your show. I was drawn to that.”
He tried theater as an elective in sixth grade and the acting bug bit him–hard. During an eighth-grade production of “The Pot Boiler,” in which he played a narcissistic director of a community theater production, the experience “made me say ‘There is something to this,’” Weaks recalled. “I get a feeling when I am acting, when I am performing. Maybe I can keep doing this.”
So far, so good for the 2017 Helen Hayes Award nominee who makes his Imagination Stage debut as Mowgli in “The Jungle Book” on the Annette M. and Theodore N. Lerner Family Theatre stage through May 28. During the 75-minute performance, the audience will see Weaks’ Mowgli age from 2 to 14 as the show explores Rudyard Kipling’s classic book rather than the Disney live action and animated versions. “I’ve always loved the story,” Weaks said. “It was one of my favorite movies and stories growing up. …You get to watch (Mowgli) grow up in this production and discover (himself).”
Imagination Stage’s Artistic Director Janet Stanford is directing the production. She felt staging this interpretation of the story “was a good opportunity and good timing to let people experience something a little closer to the original. A British playwright (Greg Banks) wrote this piece just a couple of years ago, so it feels very fresh and contemporary, and it has a lot of humor in it.”
Stanford believes audiences will love the monkey characters, which provide the most slapstick elements. Ticket holders won’t just be watching the show. Working with choreographer Jaya Prasad, a Bollywood dance specialist, audience members will participate and have the opportunity to learn some basic Bollywood moves. “I am hoping that will be another fun aspect of this production for our audience,” Stanford said.
Costume designer Kendra Rai transitions the actors from one animal to another by using a series of different turbans that go on the actor’s head and have a profile of the animal attached to it. “I think that children will get a very different view of the story that is perhaps more interesting from a cultural standpoint, certainly more challenging to their imagination, because it is not fully realized in the same way that a movie would be,” Stanford said.
Taking on the villainous role of Shere Kahn will be Imagination Stage veteran Ricardo Frederick Evans. In this script, Shere Khan has a limp, which Evans believes presents an interesting challenge for the villain. “He is at a disadvantage already because he is not physically able to be as much of a tiger as he’d like to be, so he has to sort of enroll the other animals and enroll the other wolves to help him bring down Mowgli,” Evans said. “I found that very interesting because he has to rely more on his charm at certain points to get everybody else on board with his agenda. Villainous characters generally have a charm to them, so I feel like I am trying to bring a level of charisma, a level of charm–and not just be the angry, angry villain.”
This will be Evans’ 13th production with Imagination Stage. In addition to Shere Khan, he also takes on the roles of a wolf, a monkey and a vulture in this production. Stanford said Evans loves to play dark characters, but is, by nature, a very gentle and sweet guy. “He brings a light touch to it that I think will allow the kids to recognize the bad guy without wanting to run for the exits,” she said. “He also has developed an incredible ability to create a roaring sound in the back of his throat which is pretty unique and very tiger-like.”
Stanford hopes families will come out for the show for the group activity theater offers them. “It gives you a shared experience,” she said. “An experience that is much more memorable than just watching and streaming something. You get to talk about the ideas and what you enjoyed about the play. You can meet the actors afterward.
“I think parents have the role of gatekeeper with their kids and when they choose things that stimulate their children’s imaginations and build memories for the family, they are giving a gift that is richer than just another toy from the store.”
“The Jungle Book” is on the Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda, through May 28. Tickets range from $10 to $30. Call 301-280-1660 or visit http://imaginationstage.org. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.
Video: The Jungle Book at Imagination Stage