Theatre Lab’s First Family Production is Ambitious, Imaginative

When asked if producing family theatre is any easier than tackling adult fare, Theatre Lab’s artistic director doesn’t hesitate. “Not in the least,” says Matt Stabile, with a laugh. “This show is a storytelling show. There’s a lot of imagination, a lot of adventure. You have to pull out all the stops. It’s been a ton of fun, having playtime with the group of actors I have. We consistently leave rehearsal, saying, ‘there’s a lot.’

He’s referring to “Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter,” a U.S. premiere from playwright Allison Gregory, which opens Saturday at the theater’s resident space on the FAU campus. While educational programming has been a focus of Theatre Lab’s mission from its inception, this is the company’s first full-length play that’s targeted, as Stabile likes to say, to audiences “from 8 to 80.”

It will be an ambitious venture for Theatre Lab. Gregory’s script is chock-full of transformative, movielike special effects and animalesque characters reminiscent of a Maurice Sendak story. Stabile and his tech team will realize these challenges through puppetry, live music, a whimsical set and costumes, a dramatic and nuanced lighting design, and a cast of six actors, three of whom play multiple parts. As Stabile says, there’s a lot.

Adapted from Swedish author Astrid Lindgren’s popular 1981 children’s book, “Ronia” is set in a divided forest in “a mythic countryside, some distance in the past.” The 12-year-old title character, born to a clan of robbers subsisting on the spoils of others, comes of age in a morally bankrupt and even bigoted milieu: She can’t quite understand why her parents seem to feel nothing but scorn for the other family living on the opposite side of the forest, which just so happens to look different from Ronia and her kin. Undeterred, the curious girl forms a bond with a young boy from the rival clan, risking family peril and literal pitfalls.

Stabile is aware that news of recent years—the rise of nativism and nationalism worldwide—may inform some of the show’s subtext, but the idea of star-crossed companions from war-torn families is as old as Shakespeare. “We felt that ‘choosing sides’ was a theme that could apply to every kid’s life, and that theme branches out,” he says. “What I love is that it’s got that ‘Romeo & Juliet’ vibe, but it’s two years before they’re into the romantic aspect of it. It’s that first childhood love where you don’t know what it means.”

Carbonell-winning actor Leah Sessa, who portrays Ronia, appreciates her character’s boldness and curiosity. “The show is about friendship, and standing for your own beliefs. She stands for what she believes in, even at a young age,” Sessa says. “I read the book, and was sobbing. These are life lessons even for adults.”

Leah Sessa as Ronia

Theatre Lab’s production will be a rare nonmusical featuring a live original score, performed onstage by co-composer Paul Curtis (his composing partner, Angelina Lopez Catledge, also has a role in the cast). Ronia’s character will be melodically represented by a mandolin, with the world around her conveyed by acoustic guitar. Other instruments include cello, glockenspiel, trumpet, flute and thunder sheet, all played by Curtis.

“We tried to understand the role of the music as a character—how it can speak without words,” Curtis says. “Once we read the script, we started looking at the different themes the script called for and how the music would serve as a thread to the soul of the story,” adds Catledge.

The composers are accustomed to the traditional way of creating music: fine-tuned in a studio until the pre-recorded tracks are ready to be played during the production. By adding the live, solo orchestration, Curtis will need to keep exact pace with the actors, a challenge that is balanced out, perhaps, by the sheer joy of the material.

“When we were scoring it, I think one of our concepts was that the world was very imaginative, and as such we had more liberty to include the sound effects or stretch our wings a little bit,” Curtis says. “We had more freedom, more latitude; how many times do you get to use a glockenspiel?”

For Stabile, having the live score is just one element of a show that isn’t cutting any corners: Though it’s not eligible for Carbonell Awards, he hopes to achieve the same professional standard of quality as any production his company mounts. “We’re here to put on top-notch theatre,” he says. “Just because we’re doing a show that’s geared toward kids doesn’t mean we should be putting up any roadblocks or cheapening the experience for them. How do we get them to come back as patrons if we’re not offering them top-quality product now?

“I’m not doing this just as a side thing; it’s not something we do to get the grant fulfilled. It’s something we believe in. I only want to do the theatre I want to go and see.”

“Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter” runs Saturdays at 10:30 a.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m., from Sept. 8-30, at Parliament Hall at FAU, 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton. Tickets cost $15. Children younger than 18 are free with adult admission. Call 561/297-6124 or visit fauevents.com.