A simple roll of the dice sets the stage for “Jumanji” to spring to life for its world premiere from June 17 to Aug. 28 at Adventure Theatre-MTC (ATMTC) in Glen Echo Park. Adapted for the stage by a pair of playwrights–ATMTC ‘s Artistic Director Michael J. Bobbitt and Sandra B. Eskin, the play is based on the 1981 book of the same name by two-time Caldecott Medal-winning author Chris Van Allsburg.
The impressive production team bringing the play to life features Serge Seiden, Mosaic Theater Company of DC’s managing director and producer, as director, and Elena Day, movement theater director, performer and teacher known as the creator of The Green Bird, Cirque du Soleil’s signature character, is assistant director. Five professional adult actors comprise the cast of the play, recommended for ages 4 and older.
During their collaboration, Bobbitt and Eskin focused on the relationship between the story’s siblings, Judy and Peter, because “we had decided that the siblings don’t quite get along…one is a pre-teen, one is a teenager, and they are consumed with their life ambitions.” While their parents are at the opera, the children are bored and left to their own devices. They visit a nearby park and come upon an abandoned game called Jumanji and take it home. “They have to learn to work together in order to complete the game,” Bobbitt said.
The challenge of adapting the book to the stage was, Eskin said, “to create special effects through the theater arts and at the same time, not lose the focus of the story: a brother and sister’s discovery that they do need each other.” Bobbitt promised “theatrical magic…I think one of the reasons why people love our theatre so much is we are ambitious in our desire to sort of get kids to see something special. The idea of doing ‘Jumanji’ in our space, I think, is one of the reasons people are going to come and see how we’re going to pull it off.”
Fantasy dances with reality as Judy and Peter move their game pieces along the board, disturbing the peace and quiet of their home as it is transformed into an exotic jungle replete with rain, snow, a lion, monkeys, a monsoon, rhinos, a tsetse fly, a snake, a lava erupting volcano, and a guide reviewing a map. While most of the play “centers around the two kids,” Bobbitt is “enchanted by the guide…They need his help, but he is not helpful at all and that’s hysterical…so he’s the clown of the show for me… The character works on different levels, and I think he’ll be the kids’ and the adults’ favorite.”
When he writes for children, Bobbitt attempts to “stay away from morals or messages. I try to let the action of the play define the story because I think all kids’ plays are already written to teach kids how to be better people.” He does not want his plays to be “didactic,” but “entertaining and memorable…This way, the message or moral will last longer.”
Day, who “loves the fantasy elements involved in children’s theatre,” drew parallels between her experiences as a Cirque du Soleil performer and her instrumental work designing the non-verbal scenes with “Jumanji’s” puppets. “The way a circus performer, like a clown, tells stories with their body, and the way a puppeteer tells a story through a puppet are very similar,” Day said. “In order for the puppet’s thoughts, emotions, and actions to be clearly understood by the audience, the performer must have an excellent sense of non-verbal storytelling.”
Bobbitt said the show would feature an “eclectic mix of puppeteers,” where an actor will always be present, but may be wearing part of the puppeteer costume. “We meet the mom and dad as they’re leaving, and then the mom and dad double as puppeteers for the other animals,” he noted.
In 1995, “Jumanji “was made into a movie starring the late Robin Williams. Bobbitt noted that one of the “biggest hurdles is how do you take a brand that people have a specific memory of, especially the movie, and do a stage production that doesn’t let the audience down? How do you fulfill their expectations but not recreate the film?” To that end, he said the audience will enjoy a “4-D, or immersive experience” to feel what the characters are experiencing.
A mist will come over the audience during the monsoon and “sub-woofers will provide a rumbling sound to the sound system when the lava appears.” Judy and Peter go on a “wild journey without leaving their home…so we will transform the inside of the characters’ house into a forest, a lava flow…we will join projections, puppets, sound, and atmospheric enhancements (mist! snow!) to portray these different worlds,” said Day.
The guide is, Bobbitt said, “a bit of a bumbling idiot for lack of a better term, and every time he disappears and reappears, we’re transported to a different location…so we meet the tsetse fly in the desert, and we encounter the volcano in Antarctica…so the audience may get snowed on,” Bobbitt laughed.
Seiden promised that the combination of the special effects, the cast, and the design team will “create a wonderful experience for families.” And Bobbitt concurred, “It’s really going to be a surprising, fun adventure. I like the word surprise…there are going to be jump-out-of-your-seat surprises.”
For more information, visit: www.adventuretheatre-mtc.org