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Stuffed bunny leaps to life in powerful holiday tale

by: COURTESY PHOTO: BAG & BAGGAGE -  Branden McFarland stars as 'The Boy' with The Velveteen Rabbit (from Tears of Joy Theatre in Portland) in Bag&Baggage´s holiday production.  BNowadays on Christmas Eve, kids hope Santa will scurry down the chimney and stuff their stockings with the latest high-tech toys — an iPAD touch, a PlayStation 3, an Xbox360.

But long before a click of a mouse or swipe of a finger transported them to fantasy worlds, children used an older, more powerful creative tool: their imagination.

Bringing to life one of the most beloved children's books, in a first-time collaboration with Tears of Joy Theatre in Portland, Bag&Baggage presents its world premiere adaptation of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” playing at 2 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, Dec. 13 through 22, at Hillsboro's Venetian Theater, 253 E. Main St.

First published in 1922 and written by Margery Williams, "The Velveteen Rabbit" is a timeless story about a boy and his stuffed bunny and how love can make anything possible.

Director Peter Schuyler, who worked 10 years in New York City's independent theater scene before making his theatrical Oregon debut in "Crimes," says the opportunity to work with Tears of Joy Theatre, one of the nation's top puppet companies, was a no-brainer for Bag&Baggage.

While adhering to the general storyline of the original children’s book, Schuyler said playwright David Jenkins’ script of “The Velveteen Rabbit” is very much an adaptation, and one that exposes both companies’ talent for moving theater from the mundane to the fantastical.

Set in the winding paths of a 1920s English garden, a young boy, played by Brandon McFarland (Chiron in Bag&Baggage’s “Kabuki Titus”) receives a stuffed, velveteen rabbit for Christmas.

Living in the nursery among other toys, the rabbit — an adorable three-and-half-foot puppet operated by Tears of Joy's artistic director Nancy Aldrich — befriends the wise but tattered Skin Horse, who tells his bunny friend that the goal of all nursery toys is to be made “real” by the love of a human.

“If you love something enough and imbue with spirit, it becomes real to you,” said Schuyler, who recalls reading the story for the first time as a child and being drawn to the story again as an adult.

As the velveteen rabbit believes he is becoming real through the boy's love and companionship, puppeteer Aldrich makes the rabbit come to life on stage.

Dressed in a black costume, Aldrich disappears behind the giant toy bunny, the only Tears of Joy-crafted puppet on stage. Enacting the talking rabbit's lines, she maneuvers his whiskered head, pink ears and soft limbs. With buttons for eyes, “it's a full-fledged character,” said Schuyler.

The Bag&Baggage director says their version of the children's classic is as much about the power of love as it is about the power of imagination. “The transformative power of love is a very positive thing,” he said, “But really all kids need is their imagination to build a whole new world.”

The audience travels with the boy on grand imaginary adventures as he takes his beloved stuffed rabbit to sail the high seas, explore faraway islands, and fight pirates and airplanes that swoop out of the sky.

Thanks to the talented designs of Bag&Baggage costumer, Melissa Heller, the boy's world expands to include characters like the rocking horse (a modern take of the old English skin horse), a giant jack-in-the-box, and an airplane with wings for arms.

“I like the way we've worked in the magic,” said Schuyler. “There's a reason this book — a great story of a friendship between a boy and his rabbit, written in 1922 — has stayed a favorite.”



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