Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Thinking outside the barn

How Adventure Theatre turned a play about a talented pig into a celebration of adoption and the meaning of family ties

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Bruce Douglas
Trophy pig: TV Commentator (Alex Perez), left, sings the praises of Babe, the sheep pig (Emily Price), and Farmer Hogget (Randahl N. Lindgren) gets a trophy from the Sheep Trial Judge (Chris Cook) (left) while Fly (Zehra Fazal) looks on.
Lauren Bloom knew that pandas would not be enough.

The D.C. attorney was flying to Kazakhstan to make her formal petition to a panel of judges and secure the adoption of her 5-year-old daughter Tatyana.

‘‘I needed to show them the benefits of living in this area,” she says, ‘‘and what I could offer as a mother.

‘‘I wanted the court to know that this was a child who would be exposed to the arts.”

And so — along with snaps of the pandas at the National Zoo — she included still pictures from ‘‘The Stinky Cheese Man” at Adventure Theatre, a place she envisions as part of Tatyana’s future as the little girl learns and grows in her brand-new home.

‘‘I really wanted them to know what a great community this is,” the self-described ‘‘theater person” says. ‘‘And Adventure Theatre was a part of that.”

Michael Bobbitt, the theater’s artistic director, couldn’t be more delighted.

‘‘It’s interesting,” says Bobbitt, a friend of Bloom’s and the father of 7-year-old Sang, who was born in Vietnam. ‘‘Three shows this season had adoption connections: ‘Stuart Little,’ ‘The Secret Garden’ and now ‘Babe.’”

‘‘I’ve become more sensitive to adoption issues, being an adoptive dad myself,” he adds. ‘‘You know, the first book I read to my son – in the orphanage in Vietnam – was ‘Goodnight Moon,’ a play that had a successful run for us.”

Bobbitt sees connections everywhere; it’s part of the secret to his success as an actor and director. He’s staging ‘‘Babe, the Sheep Pig,” adapted by David Wood and based on the book by Dick King-Smith that was made into an Oscar-winning movie starring James Cromwell and, well, an adorable pig. And he’s making sure ‘‘Babe” finds its audience: Last weekend was Grandparents’ Day, next weekend is Squeals on Wheels (complete with petting zoo — and hand-washing station – on site). And this weekend is ‘‘Celebrate Adoption Weekend,” with organizations like The Adoption Center of Washington, The Barker Foundation and Friends of Russian and Ukrainian Adoptions on hand.

‘‘We’re ramping up our outreach program,” he says. ‘‘I like to call it ‘community engagement’ — reaching out to communities — ethnic minority groups, military families, gay [parent] families. We’re finding ways to tie the shows to the audience and show that Adventure Theatre is a place for everyone.”

Family farm

Alistair Faghani has learned quite a bit about adoption lately.

‘‘It’s something you have to get used to,” he says. ‘‘You have to get to know them as a family because this is permanent.”

Faghani, 11, is one of the young actors performing multiple parts in ‘‘Babe, the Sheep Pig,” and the rising Pyle Middle School sixth-grader has been drawing on his own experience to inform his work onstage.

‘‘My friend’s family is adopting a brother from Russia,” he says. ‘‘It took them a year to get all the paperwork. They had to constantly go to Russia, do health stuff.”

The result? A video game-playing version of the young actor’s own little sisters, who will probably grow into a typical, tag-along kid brother once he’s acclimated and perfected his English.

Faghani knows it won’t happen overnight – ‘‘It’s going to be a big change,” he says – but understands that, eventually, this adoption will have an impact on him and the whole community. That’s how it happens in ‘‘Babe,” anyway.

‘‘It’s all about the farm,” he explains. ‘‘Farmer Hogget and Mrs. Hogget getting used to Babe, and once they grow to like him, they see the connections between the farmyard animals.”

For Emily Price, 15, playing Babe is ‘‘a new experience. I’ve never played an animal before!”

But, like Faghani, she sees the sheep pig as a connector, a facilitator of relationships among the family that has developed among the farm animals.

‘‘At first, Babe is very shy,” says Price, ‘‘but he grows to love Fly, the sheepdog who adopts him, and all the farm animals. And he teaches them about politeness and manners.”

That’s how Babe rolls. He finds success as a porcine shepherd only because he treats the sheep with the respect and the politeness they deserve.

Great kids

‘‘Babe is the hero,” Tanera Hutz says. ‘‘He turns everything around.”

The D.C.-based actress is a resident artist at Adventure Theatre. Trained at the National Conservatory of the Dramatic Arts, she works as a dental hygienist when she’s not performing.

‘‘It was good advice from one of my acting teachers: ‘Get a real job!’” she says.

As Mrs. Hogget, Hutz plays the not-so-motherly mother figure Babe eventually wins over – ‘‘part Hyacinth Buckett, part Angela Lansbury in ‘Sweeney Todd.’” In real life, she has seen adoption through Bobbitt’s eyes.

‘‘Michael’s experience with adopting Sang was as in-depth as I’ve ever gotten,” she says. ‘‘For a lot of people, adoption is something they’ve never thought about, but with theater, we have a chance to talk about sensitive, sometimes personal, topics.”

Randahl N. Lindgren, who plays Farmer Hogget, agrees.

‘‘It’s entertainment,” he says, ‘‘but that story underneath is rather sweet.”

Lindgren grew up in the Midwest – his grandfather was a farmer – and traveled the world working as an air traffic control officer, first for the Air Force, then privately.

‘‘This story is based in Wales,” he says, ‘‘and we did live close to a farming community in the U.K. I was sorry to leave.”

But happy to be where he is right now.

‘‘This is my first time at Adventure Theatre,” says Lindgren, who has been acting for 18 years, mostly in musical theater. ‘‘It’s a great site, here in Glen Echo Park, and the resident artists are wonderful.

‘‘And the ‘kid’ actors they’ve brought in are just great,” he adds. ‘‘Great actors – and great kids, too.

World family

Zehra Fazal plays Fly, the mother dog who takes in the orphaned Babe and teaches him the family business. The 23-year-old grew up in Indiana ‘‘in a house that was surrounded by cornfields on all sides.

‘‘My parents were doctors,” she says, ‘‘but when I think of home, I think of farms.”

And when she thinks of family, the D.C.-based Wellesley graduate looks out into the wide world. Fazal studied in Japan for nearly a year. After learning French in high school, she ‘‘wanted to try a different language with a different character set” – and has experienced warmth and welcome far away from the familiar cornfields.

‘‘Through my travels, I’ve found people around the world I’ve had a connection with,” says Fazal. ‘‘Family can be made in two ways: There’s the family you’re born into, and there’s also the family you find in the world.”

That’s a message that gets highlighted on Celebrate Adoption Weekend, but Bobbitt feels strongly that ‘‘Babe, the Sheep Pig” is an allegory that works on many levels.

‘‘It’s a wonderful story,” he says. ‘‘The runt of the litter is left behind, then adopted...by a mother who teaches all the kids that it’s OK to be different. Babe grows into a strong, solid individual, and teaches the rest of the world that being unique is great.”

So not only do adopted children and their families get a chance to celebrate who they are, Bobbitt says, but all children get to celebrate their individuality and unlimited potential. It’s a win-win situation.

‘‘This gives children another reason to be proud they were adopted,” says Bloom, who is heading back to Kazakhstan to pick up Tatyana for good. ‘‘Adoption has been misunderstood; the more we talk about it, the better.

‘‘It’s a beautiful way to form a family.”

‘‘Babe, the Sheep Pig” runs through Aug. 3 at Adventure Theatre, Glen Echo Park, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. Performances begin at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays with special Friday evening performances on July 18 and Aug. 1 at 7 p.m. An ASL-interpreted show is set for 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 3. All tickets are $12. This weekend is Celebrate Adoption Weekend; July 26 features the Squeals on Wheels Petting Zoo from noon to 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $5, and a hand washing station is available. For tickets, call 301-634-2270 or visit www.adventuretheatre.org.