By BERNADETTE RAE
Rehearsals have taken place next to a river, on a swing, with the roller door of the rehearsal space at Western Springs wide open to the ravages of the night, the wind, the rain and the mud, and the inspiration of wet grass. Curious seagulls have proffered their accompaniment.
All things vital and necessary, says Theatre Stampede director Ben Crowder, to build up the history, the feel, the life of this new production of the fantastical fable The Young Baron in the actors' bones.
The play, surreal in flavour, spectacular in performance, is taken from Italo Calvino's book The Baron in the Trees and was the first offering, in 1999, of the newly formed Theatre Stampede. Crowder and co-founder Vanessa Chapple both trained with the acknowledged maestro of devised and physical theatre, John Boulton, in Melbourne. Their subsequent works in New Zealand have included the glorious Blossom and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Young Baron I was a zany, exuberant, deftly devised and extremely physical affair.
That material has been reworked for this new version, says Crowder, and some of the best elements of more traditional theatrical style have been added to provide structure and depth, while retaining the old joyful style.
Three of the original cast have returned. Kate Bartlett plays the Mother, nicknamed The Generalessa for her penchant for cannons (non-functional) and games of a warlike nature.
Brett Stewart is again the Young Baron Cossimo who, rather than face the dramatic changes being wrought within his eccentric but happy family, takes to a life in the trees.
Julie Nolan returns as Battista, Cossimo's sister, who is deaf and mute, and bites - but for pleasure, not malice.
Wellingtonian Miriama McDowell joins the company as Viola, "the most beautiful young woman in all of Europe" and star of the love-interest sub-plot.
Ben Baker is The Cavalier who moves into this long-separated branch of his family to take control, after the death of the senior Baron, but creates more chaos and heartbreak than order, with his Jesuit convictions and beliefs. And Jeremy Randerson plays the younger brother, Biaggio.
The set reflects both Cossimo's treetop world and the encroachment of religion, and fills Crowder's thespian heart with glee. Taking its form from cathedral "centrings" - the wooden frames traditionally erected before the stones were mortared into place - it consists of a series of arches, high and elegant, with a canopy.
The idea for the set was developed after exploring hundreds of images of trees, and before the story reached its final form. Crowder is delighted at how the play has grown into its religious overtones. He is also amazed at Wellington designer Alice Tinning's ability to cope with the evolution of the work and the hundreds of changes that have been made to her original model.
"The work throws light on the value, positive or negative, of a religious god," he says. "It also explores how a family copes with change, and the lengths an individual will go to to protect what is familiar and loved. It is also a coming of age story: Cossimo is just 15 at the beginning and about 17 at the end.
"And like any good fable, you can go just for the story or find a more satisfying meaning for it all, in retrospect."
* The Young Baron is at the Herald Theatre June 5-24.
By BERNADETTE RAE