It wouldn't exactly be unexpected for a theater company to skimp on a children's production, particularly one aimed at the 8 and younger crowd. After all, how much would the kids really notice, right?
That's what makes the production of “The Velveteen Rabbit” currently playing at the Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn such a delightful surprise. Not only does Theatre IV not skimp on this show, but it pulls out all of the stops, with director Steve Perigard squeezing copious amounts of enchantment and whimsy into a compact 50-minute production.
The care lavished here is clear before the show even starts, thanks to Brian Barker's meticulous set design that evokes both a comfortable boy's bedroom and a charming garden. But that's only the beginning. As the play begins to explore the minimalist plot lifted from Margery Williams' popular children's book, the characters sport lovely 1920s era costumes (design by Sue Griffin and Lynn West), Terry Snyder's puppets are mechanical marvels and the set proves to have some nifty surprises built in.
Beyond the technical panache, the show features a cast replete with top-notch talent. First among them is David Janeski, manipulating the puppet of the titular rabbit as well as providing his voice and personality. Recently given to a young boy, the simple stuffed bunny eventually progresses from a naive newbie recoiling from the disdain of the other toys to the boy's favorite pal. As part of playing with the boy, Janeski inhabits entertaining personas like Professor Bunny and Commander Bunny without ever becoming too big for his character.
The rabbit is propelled on a quest to become real by the Skin Horse (Gordon Bass), the kindly veteran of the boy's playroom who knows firsthand the power of a child's love. Along the way, the rabbit meets a couple of flesh-and-blood bunnies (playfully rendered by Ronnie Brown and Robin Harris-Jones) as well as a fairy (the beautifully ethereal K Strong) who may hold the key to his new future. Overseeing the boy's life is the imperious Nana, who AnnaMarie Rossi portrays with a fussiness expertly tempered with gruff affection.
Acting newcomer Xavier Barrett infuses the young boy with equal measures of sweet innocence and sly mischievousness, making his transformative affection for the rabbit entirely believable. And he's pretty darn adorable as well. One minor quibble with the production would be the persistence of the somewhat cloying background music (written by Brian Harris). But even so, this “Velveteen Rabbit” is everything one could want in a kid's show: fun, furry and fabulously constructed.
“The Velveteen Rabbit” runs through Jan. 9 at the Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn. Go to theatreivrichmond.org or call 282-2620 for details.