The gentle whimsy of Aurand Harris' 45-year-old play, Androcles and the Lion, enchanted young audiences and those young at heart for the past two weekends at Anne Arundel Community College with its message of kindness toward fellow human beings.
The timeless play is based on one of Aesop's fables, a familiar story of a young slave who removes a thorn from a lion's paw and becomes his friend. Harris employed elements of Commedia del'Arte style of Italian theater, where troupes of energetic actors wearing elaborate costumes and masks entertain audiences with uplifting stories that laugh at human frailties.
In the opening scene of the Moonlight Troupers' production, the actors wandered through the audience to establish contact -- especially with the youngest members. Young actors ran and taunted each other and even brawled as they got their whole bodies into the action before ascending to the stage. They sat at the edge of the stage to address the audience directly while the narrator (Rosalind Snyder) delivered the prologue in rhyme.
Director Peter Kaiser is familiar to local audiences for his acting and directing at the now-defunct Chesapeake Music Hall and numerous productions at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre. A member of the AACC staff, Kaiser frequently serves as set designer and technical director for Moonlight Troupers. His directorial skills were in evidence in this production, where he not only gathered a superb cast but had them work in fluid harmony.
Kaiser had help from set and lighting designer Rob Berry and costume designer Barbara Marder, who also served as producer. Anita O'Connor was musical director and sometimes show pianist, although on Friday Marsha Goldsmith served in the latter role. Versatile Joy Ajello added props designer to her usual duties as house manager and box office head. This is a demanding show that requires an agile, energetic cast that can instantly summon method-actor style.
In the title role was charismatic James Matthew Poole, who sings, dances and acts with complete conviction. Poole is also president of Moonlight Troupers and represented the college in the Irene Ryan Acting Competition at the regional American College Theatre Festival. Poole does it all with dedication and skill.
The Lion was whimsically and humorously played by Ethan Goldberg, vice president of the theater troupe, who brought his considerable energies to the role.
First-year AACC theater major TaylorJae Touzin as Isabella proved she can act, deliver a comic line and sing as well as anyone in the cast.
As her eager young lover Lelio, AACC acting student James Durcan handsomely proved to be a fine ensemble player. As penurious Pantalone, full-time AACC staff member and veteran actor Jerry Vess once again proved fully capable of creating a ludicrous villain while summoning the stamina of a primed young athlete.
AACC music major Brandon Hendrickson adroitly handled comedy, playing the bragging, posturing, "fearless" Captain. Fine arts and theater major Rosalind Snyder delivered the long rhyming prologue without getting bogged down in the rhyme scheme to make Androcles' story instantly clear even to the youngest audience members.
Bernadette Ristaino and Joey Conway served well as ensemble players delivering everything from peasant to Caesar with panache.
The show teaches a worthwhile lesson, that "every man must be free to be," as it pokes fun at the pompous, avaricious master and rewards the slave Androcles' compassion toward the fearsome Lion and concern for his boss Pantalone's daughter Isabelle and her lover. And wise old Aesop puts words of wisdom into Caesar's mouth to create a democratic leader worthy of respect and centuries ahead of his time.
Although the performance I caught on Friday was sparsely attended, those who were in the audience seemed to enjoy the show, especially the young kindergarten-age children in the first row, who were obviously enchanted.
I hope that other performances were better attended because this show was of that increasingly rare commodity known as "family entertainment." Moonlight Troupers productions deserve community support for their consistently high quality and affordable ticket prices: $10 general admission, $7 for seniors and students and even lower rates for AACC students and children.
Next on schedule at AACC's Pascal Center for the Performing Arts will be a free Handel and Mozart concert at 3 p.m. Sunday.