By Alec Clayton
What a treat and a unique twist on a classic! Olympia Family Theater with String & Shadow Puppet Theater is performing a modern adaptation of The Secret Garden. This one, which is set in the present day in the Pacific Northwest and written by award-winning playwright Mabelle Reynoso from a Latinx perspective, has punk rock music, talking creatures, magical plants and puppets.
It’s directed by String & Shadow codirector Emily McHugh and assistant director Marissa Rivera Bolaños. Based loosely on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, its comical, magical, satirical style is nothing like the more somber style of the original. As OFT artistic director Lily Raabe said in her welcoming remarks opening night, it is not a Victorian tragedy. Later in the play, a character played by Oliver Garcia sarcastically riffs on that idea by griping, “My life is a Victorian tragedy.”
The play opens with Mary (Daniela Acuna) in bed in a hotel. She’s an angry punk rocker who spends her time eating in bed, writing on the walls, and listening to punk rock. She’s taken to live with her uncle (Victor Velazquez), who is curiously absent during much of the play, and cared for by a servant named Medlock (Lucy Elle Balls). Outside the manor is a garden wall covered with dying, creeping vines and flowers. Mary meets and befriends a boy named Dee (Beckham Barehand) who is said to be loved by everyone. With the help of a puppet bird, she discovers the key to a secret garden on the grounds. Her friendship with Dee and an elderly, very droll gardener (Raphael Venegas) and their work in the garden bring her out of her funk and soften her anger.
A mouse shows up, and Mary screams and beats the mouse off with a broom but later becomes friends with it. The mouse isn’t one of the puppets; rather, she (Lex Langguth-Torres) wears a blue bathrobe and is hilarious, especially when dancing in a delightful music-hall costume. Similarly comical is a deer that crosses in front of the garden and runs away, and that creature is a puppet. A procession of doors and living pictures marches across the set over and over and over again, a laugh riot.
At last, Mary discovers a boy named Carlos (Garcia) living in the house. Carlos, who cannot walk, is the rich, spoiled, bitter, son of her guardian uncle. Carlos believes he’s dying. Little by little, his hardened heart softens as he and Mary spend time in the secret garden.
Acuna is a natural as Mary. Venegas, though he says very little, comes across as the epitome of a grumpy but lovable old gardener. Barehand is well cast as the likable Dee and especially funny when he strikes still poses.
The set by Jill Carter and lighting by Olivia Burlingame are gorgeous.
Playwright Reynoso, a Latinx, multidisciplinary storyteller and award-winning playwright, first collaborated with OFT on its Fully Vaxxed project in the spring of this year.
Director Emily McHugh shared, “I was excited for a variety of reasons. There is a Latinx cast and there’s a lot of Spanglish in the script. I had seen the play that Mabelle wrote for the Fully Vaxxed project and really loved it. I thought it had a lot of humor and wit and clippy dialogue, so I was excited about the writer. Also, it’s modern-day and takes place in the Pacific Northwest, so it features plant species that are native here. I always like an opportunity for some native mushrooms.”
The Secret Garden is recommended for ages 5 and up. It runs a little short of two hours including an intermission. Masks are no longer required but are recommended. The house was sold out for opening night and the 3 p.m. show Oct. 15 show is already sold out, so go online and purchase tickets early.
The Secret Garden
7 p.m. Fridays; 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 16 (masks required at all Sunday performances)