In India, the lightning-fast gray mongoose is revered as a hero because it fearlessly takes on the venomous hooded cobra in fights to the death.
And in Frederick, a little gray mongoose named Rikki Tikki Tavi is a hero in the Fun Company’s latest puppet play based on a short story of the same name by Rudyard Kipling.
“It’s a little dark and gory at times,” company member Sarah Shulman says about the original story written in the late 19th century, which she has adapted by toning down the violence for young children.
Shulman changed the ending so the little brave mongoose emerges as a hero without having to kill the cobras to become one.
“Rikki Tikki Tavi and his helpmate Darzee [the tailorbird] outsmart the snakes, and the snakes leave the garden,” Shulman says. “It’s resolved peacefully.”
The 55-minute production for age four and older begins Saturday at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre’s playhouse in downtown Frederick. The Fun Company is part of the MET.
The story, with actors taking on multiple roles and also manipulating puppets, takes place in tropical India in a house with a garden occupied by an English couple and their young son, Teddy.
The family rescues a young mongoose from a flood, and the mongoose becomes Teddy’s pet.
During Rikki Tikki Tavi’s nightly patrol of the house and garden, a muskrat named Chuchundra warns him about the arrival of two king cobras, Nag and his wife Nagaina.
Rikki Tikki Tavi overhears the two snakes plotting and learns they plan to kill Teddy’s father as a way to drive out the humans and take back the garden for themselves.
Shulman says she has always appreciated Kipling’s stories about animals because he doesn’t try to make them behave and think like people.
“He never does that,” she says. “He keeps the animals, animals. They talk about animal stuff, but they’re still telling the story.”
The four actors take turns narrating and also play multiple roles.
Katie Rattigan plays Rikki Tikki Tavi, the mongoose; Courtney McLaughlin plays Darzee, a songbird that helps him; Ashley Hall plays Teddy and cobra Nagaina; and Tim Eichelberger plays the cobra Nag.
Puppets were designed by Julie Herber, director of The Fun Company, and puppeteer Vanessa Strickland.
Hall, who has performed with The Fun Company for seven years, says this is the first time she’s acted in a production with “this much puppetry.”
One thing Hall has learned is how to look at and talk to a puppet, not the person manipulating it.
“It’s been a neat learning experience to learn how to use the puppets correctly,” Hall says.
As Nagaina, Hall uses her arm to manipulate the head and body of the snake, which is made of wire tubing covered with cloth.
Halls says she opted to avoid doing what others do when they portray snakes, which is to exaggerate the “s” sounds to sound like a hiss.
“I tried to find a voice for her by making it lower and with an evil British accent,” Hall says.
Because Kipling’s story is relatively short, Shulman and the actors also added songs based on some of the rhymed verse in Kipling’s story.
“Visually it’s a very cool show,” Hall says about the production. “It’s a lot of fun, and it’s very funny.
“And it has a nice little message about being confident and that there are lots of different ways to be brave.”