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Improvisation brings new life to Aesop's 'The Tortoise and the Hare'


When Aesop wrote the fable, "The Tortoise and the Hare," it's likely that he never imagined a race like the one in the original children's play that will be presented at Theatre on the Hill starting tomorrow.

This adaptation of "The Tortoise and the Hare" has been scripted for sheer exuberance by director Jean Burgess, who also directed "The Emperor's New Clothes" for Theatre on the Hill in 1993.

"What I did was create a scenario -- an outline -- and the actors improvise a script, creating the story as they go along," said Ms. Burgess, who is in her sixth season with the summer professional theater company at Western Maryland College.

"We also use audience participation -- we talk to the audience and bring the children [in the audience]into the play," she said. "We'll have six children come up on the stage, and they'll get little animal noses and become animals in the forest with the cast members."

As everybody knows, the tortoise does beat the hare in the race, but Aesop's tale was never this much fun. Ms. Burgess has created scenes between the haughty hare and the timorous tortoise that are sure to have the audience laughing almost nonstop.

One of the funniest scenes in the play takes place when the hare is hanged by his ears on a clothesline by a crotchety old lady doing her laundry. Later, the hare gets caught in a brier bush.

"The hare is conceited, macho and bragging, and the tortoise is laid back, calm, slow and nice," Ms. Burgess said. "There's a little girl who's real obnoxious and a cheerleader who's always cheering the race on. They're really fun characters, full of energy."

But audience members should come prepared to help the characters throughout the play. The obnoxious little girl loses her dog and asks the audience to help her find him so she can give him a bath he doesn't want. When the hare gets a stomachache from eating too many berries, he seeks audience advice for a cure.

Every time the hare gets in trouble, he finds some way to take advantage of the poor tortoise. But the tortoise lets nothing stop him in his quest to win the Woodland Olympics, not even the cheating, conniving schemes of the hare.

"The hare is not very friendly, he's too self-involved and definitely the antagonist," said Ray Ficca, who plays the white hare.

"The tortoise is an introvert and keeps to himself," said Dallas Munger, who portrays the green tortoise.

While the hare thinks only of winning any way he can, the tortoise sees the wisdom and success of being kind, honest and helpful to others.

The sweet-tempered tortoise of fers adages that remind all of us what we could be if we just slow down a little and consider others' needs as well as our own.

His philosophy is to do unto others as he would have others do unto him; after all, it's not important if you win or lose, but how you play the game. "At the end, the hare shakes the tortoise's hand, so we hope the kids see that there's a right way and a wrong way to do things," Mr. Ficca said.

"The tortoise always talks in morals while the hare keeps tricking and cheating him, but at the end the tortoise wins, and there's a lesson in that," Ms. Burgess said.

"The play is fun for the adults, too, and gives the story another dimension."

Underlying the action on stage is the hope that the hare sincerely sees the wisdom of the tortoise's kindness and integrity, and accepts his loss gracefully.

After the play, the characters will greet the audience and sign autographs, Ms. Burgess said.

"The Tortoise and the Hare" will be performed at 11 a.m. tomorrow and July 15, 22, 29, Aug. 5 and 12 on the main stage in Alumni Hall, Western Maryland College. Tickets for children and adults are $5. Information: 857-2448.

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