Saturday, April 26, 2014

REVIEW: OCT's "The Giver" is Deep, Disturbing and Delightful

An Oregon Children's Theatre (OCT) Original directed by Matthew B. Zrebski at the Winningstad Theatre in Portland, Ore. There have been over 250 productions of this play produced since OCT premiered it in 2006. Winner of the American Alliance for Theatre and Education (AATE) Distinguished Play Award.


Unfortunately these pre-production
photos do not well represent the
show's actual look and feel.
Jonas's world is perfect. Everything is under control. There is no war or fear or pain. There are no choices, individuality, or emotions—they are against the rules. When Jonas turns twelve he is selected to train with The Giver, who is the keeper of the entire Community’s memories, both good and bad. Now Jonas must shoulder the burden of memory and learn the harsh truths of what it means to live a life of sameness.

From the acclaimed Newbery Award-winning author, Lois Lowry, The Giver returns to Oregon Children’s Theatre eight years after its world premiere on their stage. And while a great and provocative book and play, I question its validity for children, at least those under twelve years of age.

Frankly, it is adult material. I say that not in a prudish or moralistic sense, but as a parent who sees the material as too "hard." This is a play that deals with difficult cultural and social issues--the right to life (and the right to die) of the young and infirm, the horrors of death and destruction, what life could mean without those things or even a life with out passion and love. Because if you take away one you also take the other. It's hard to explain. I suggest reading the book (it's a small book packing a big whollup) before you decide to subject your children.


Tristan Comella as Jonas, The Receiver.
The quality of OCT's shows is generally top notch. You can expect a good show for your money. And this production is no exception. Costumes (by Emily Horton) and makeup (?) are great. The de-saturation and re-saturation effects are, well, very effective. The sets, lighting (both by Tal Sanders) and sound (by Em Gustason) designs are exceptional and highly creative (especially the amazing soundscape). The use of video/media (by Jeff Kurihara), and the entire design thereof, is stunning and brilliant.The stage direction, by Matthew B. Zrebski, was also interesting and well done.

However, I'm am not quite happy with the character direction. The characters, for the most part, came off flat and unmoving. I suspect this was the director's artistic  "choice" for communicating the feeling (or lack there of) of "sameness" since it was almost universal. I make this observation in comparison to the vibrant energy of other OCT productions.

I do note that there is a shift in the emotiveness of Jonas as he begins to receive the memories. The Giver was the only character who had passion from the get-go. So, you see what I'm thinking, no? I'm not saying it was a wrong choice, I'm just saying, as a director myself (having read the book and not seen that), I'm not sure I would have interpreted the work that way.

And, since the show is presented as Children's Theater, I think a lighter, funner feel might be a better contrast against the underbelly of what's at work behind the seemingly ideal life lived on the surface. I don't know, either way it's likely to come off as a downer in the end anyway (depending on how you interpret it, I suppose). I do think adults will get even more out of the story than kids--even teens. This is a valuable look at society, governmental control and personal choice that can only truly be appreciated by those who have been living for a while.


The cast was good, don't get me wrong there. Tristan Comella, in the lead as Jonas, showed a sincere range of emotion. I especially liked Andres Alcala as The Giver; he gave a truly passionate and convincing performance.

But it was fifth-grader Steele Clevenger who threatened to steal the show. Her portrayal as the naive and oblivious Lily, was spot on, always a darling and dear. If you go watch her; her acting seems intuitive.

I should also note the downplay of the character Rosemary in this adaption. I was disappointed that it was reduced to a walk-on part (literally). I feel sorry for Zoe Stadler, who played the part, with her experience she deserved more (but then, as they say: "there are no small parts...").


The Giver imparts a memory to Jonas, The Receiver.
Though the material isn't light and fluffy (which I prefer) I enjoyed the show. I felt the adaptation and presentation were faithful in communicating the message of the book. And I found it (just as I did the book) deep, disturbing and delightful.

"The Giver" is playing now through May 18, Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Sign Interpreted: Saturday, May 3 at 2 p.m. OCT recommends the play for ages 9 and up. I recommend twelve and older.

Get $10 teen tickets!

Based on the awesome, but disturbing, Newbery Award winning novel by Lois Lowry. Adapted by Eric Coble. Originally commissioned by Oregon Children’s Theatre, March 2006.

By Gregory E. Zschomler
Photos, provided, by Owen Carey
For another perspective by Dennis Sparks click here.

The movie comes out this August and stars Meryl Streep, Taylor Swift, Katie Holmes, Jeff Bridges. Alexander Skarsgard, and Brenton Thwaites as Jonas.

1 comment:

  1. I agree the intention of the acting was to give it all sameness. I was actually shocked at the playfulness the father played with Gabe. The Giver is one of my favorite books, I was concerned at how it would come off in play form. I was mostly pleased with this interpretation that did not veer from the original writing.