‘The Further Adventures of Uncle Wiggily: Windblown Visitors’

A child uprooted from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, separated from her grandfather during her rescue and whisked off to distant relatives in New York, finds herself in a strange new world. This is the story of “The Further Adventures of Uncle Wiggily: Windblown Visitors” by Laurel Hessing, a verse play with music for young audiences that tells of the experience of dislocation as an animal story. Hessing’s play, written mostly in verse, will be presented March 1 to 25 by Theater for the New City in a spectacular production with score by Arthur Abrams, elaborate mask work and puppetry, aerial choreography and a cast of 35 directed by Crystal Field.

Hessing felt that with the vehicle of a child’s dream, she could relate the experience of Hurricane Katrina to young audiences. This musical hails the spirit and courage of our fellow New Orleaneans and points the way to a bright fulfillment of their desire to rebuild this much-loved city. This approach was facilitated by Hessing’s natural ability with verse. The playwright explains, writing in the style of her play:

Christopher Grant, Craig Meade, Clara Ruf Maldonado.
LR: Christopher Grant, Craig Meade, Clara Ruf Maldonado. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

as levees break and lake covers land

the child goes to relatives in New York City

Relatives good and kind

But she is in a strange new world

and her grandpa is left behind

At the end of the day she has a dream

not of the human cost

but of the animals of New Orleans and

of the homes they lost

She dreams of rabbits who lost their burrows

and squirrels who had to flee

Her dream takes shape from her favorite book

Adventures of Uncle Wiggily

My story is for all the children

Katrina is my theme

but my way of telling the terrible tale

is through a child’s sweet dream.

Her concept was inspired by the writings of Howard R. Garis (1873-1962), whose Uncle Wiggily stories she read and listened to as a child. These stories tell of an elderly gentleman rabbit with a sense of compassion and justice for all people. Over 15,000 episodes appeared in the Newark News between 1910 and 1947. Hessing borrowed her Uncle Wiggily character from Garis; the other characters of the play are all original.

In “The Further Adventures of Uncle Wiggily: Windblown Visitors,” a little girl named Merilee is separated from her grandfather during Hurricane Katrina. She is rescued along with a little boy named Johnny and brought to the strange new world of New York City to stay with her aunt and uncle. She is put to bed at night with her Uncle Wiggily storybook and her toy rabbit. Lo and behold, Uncle Wiggily appears. Merilee is now a bunny named Merilee Rabbit. In order to get to her Uncle Wiggily, she must meet all the creatures of Central Park, negotiate the new animal hierarchy, and find her way to the tree stump home where the gentlemanly rabbit will be waiting for her. In her journey, accompanied by Johnny Squirrel, she encounters New York’s leading hawks (Pale Male and Lola), the coyote, a grey wolf, a dog catcher, bad boys, a little girl bear named Neddie Stub Tail, a flock of fireflies, a beaver, some French cats and their tour guide, and Ali the Cajun Alligator. Eventually Merilee and Johnny return to New Orleans by joining a circus train.

Most of the play is in rhyme because that is the animal patois. (When the animals interact with humans, they do it in prose, because humans don’t speak it.) The songs, written by Hessing, are scored by veteran TNC composer Arthur Abrams. Musical styles range from Old New Orleans to Chopinesque firefly music–the fireflies have a ballet with moving lights, choreographed by director Crystal Field. Because the French have a long history and deep relationship with New Orleans, there are French characters who have come to help the city anyway they can. Together, they sing an animal version of The Marseillaise, as rewritten by Laurel Hessing in English and French.

The cast of 35 includes ten children and is headed by Clara Ruf Maldonado as Merilee/Merilee Rabbit. Clara, age 9, has played the juvenile lead in ABT’s “The Nutcracker” at Lincoln Center these last two years. Christopher Grant, who also appeared in ABT’s “Nutcracker,” plays her companion, Johnny Squirrel. Uncle Wiggily is played by Craig Meade. The cast also features Primy Rivera as Pale Male, Elizabeth Ruf as Lola (the female hawk), Michael Vazquez as The Coyote and John Preyor as Buddie, a wheel chair-bound child (who later becomes well again). There will be five onstage musicians.

Laurel Hessing graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in Comparative Literature. She also studied in Paris at L’Alliance francaise, Ecole de langue and took courses at L’universite de la Sorbonne pour les etudiants etrangers And at l’ Ecole de Seine (preparatoire pour l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts). She translated her father-in-law’s portrayal of events as an inmate in a Nazi concentration camp from the original German. The original document and translation are now in the archives of the Leo Baeck Institute. Hessing is fluent in French, Hebrew and English. Her musical, “The Little Prince,” based on the book by Atoine de St. Exupery, was presented by TNC in 1973 with score by David Tice and actor Tim Robbins in the title role. Robbins, who acted in plays and musicals under Crystal Field’s direction for six years, is now a Board Member of TNC.

As a child, Ms. Hessing spent summers as a child in Free Acres, a Single Tax Community founded on the principles of Henry George, located in the Watchung Hills of central New Jersey. She wrote “The Free Acres Pageant,” a musical based on the colony, which was produced there for its 75th Anniversary in 1985 and “Sketching Utopia” (TNC, 2001) with music by Arthur Abrams, a musical drama of the lives of Greenwich Village radicals who envisioned and built “ideal communities” based on the exciting progressive philosophies before World War I. She has also written two historical works based on the community, “The Annotated Anthology of Free Acres Writing” (1992) and “Treasures of the Little Cabin” (1999).

Her last show at TNC was “The Golden Bear” (2003), a musical with score by Arthur Abrams, based upon the novel “Jews Without Money” by Michael Gold. That production was supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Ms. Hessing’s plays are always a great hit at TNC. They sell out and often require extended runs.

Director Crystal Field is co-founder of Theater for the New City and has been its Artistic Director since its inception in 1970. She is an OBIE Award winning actress who was a member of the original Lincoln Center Company under the direction of Robert Whitehead and Elia Kazan and the Judson Poets Theater under the direction of Al Carmines. She has produced over 800 new plays at TNC and she is the founder/director of several Community Festivals, which have become major New York City annual events.

She previously directed all three TNC productions by Laurel Hessing. Her directing work also includes “Dream Star Cafe” by Jack Agueros, a series of epic plays on Puerto Rican subjects by Yolanda Rodriguez, “Monograms” by Susan Mach, her own play “Upstate,” a screwball comedy about a playwright with writers block, and her own 1930s-style vaudeville musical, “One Director Against His Cast.” She is director, writer and choreographer of TNC’s Annual Summer Street Theater, a politically conscious operetta that tours all five boroughs of New York City that has been commended by the office of the Manhattan Borough President for its contribution to low-income neighborhoods.

Arthur Abrams has composed the scores for numerous TNC musicals including “The Open Gate” (adapted by David Willinger from the Isaac Beshevis Singer novel, “The Manor”), “Abstinence” and “Lincoln Plaza”(both written by Tom Attea and directed by Mark Marcante), Laurel Hessing’s “Sketching Utopia ” and “The Golden Bear, and “The Glory that Was” and “Library Love” (both written by Walter Corwin). He has written incidental music for other TNC productions, including “Master and Margarita” (adapted by Jean Claude Van Itallie from Bulgakov’s novel of the same name) and ” Minus One” by Gayavira Lasana, both directed by David Willinger. Additionally, he has composed scores for several of Mark Marcante’s topical revues at TNC, including “It’s An Emergency, Don’t Hurry,” Dropping In On The Earth” and “A Little Old, A Little New.” Abrams was pianist, music director and incidental music composer for the historic Arthur Cantor documentary film about Yiddish theater, “The Golden Age of Second Avenue” which is often shown on PBS. His awards include a DAAD music fellowship to Mannheim, Germany, a scholarship to the Orff institute at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria and a “Meet the Composer” grant for the score of “The Golden Bear.”

“The Further Adventures of Uncle Wiggily: Windblown Visitors” has set design by Donald L. Brooks, costume design by Myrna Duarte, masks by Candice Burridge, puppet design by Morgan Esbert, Spica Wobbe and Momo Felix, set painting and puppetry by Walter Gurbo, additional designs by Pamela Mayo, lighting design by Jason Sturm, sound design by Joy Lindscheidt and David Nolan and aerial dance by Lisa Gioggi. The production is directed, staged and choreographed by Crystal Field. Technical director is Mark Marcante. French language consultant is Maurice Devroye. Production coordinator is Suki Weston.

March 1 to 25, 2007, Theater for the New City presents “The Further Adventures of Uncle Wiggily: Windblown Visitors.” Shows are Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 3:00 pm at the Joyce and Seward Johnson Theater (155 First Avenue at Tenth Street). The running time is 90 minutes. It costs $12 for adults and $5 for kids 12 and under. Tickets are available at the Box office (212) 254-1109 or online at www.theaterforthenewcity.net.

Jonathan Slaff writes on cultural events from the brainy, the edgy and the good. He helps us keep ahead of the curve in the world of the arts and culture.