Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book

Huntsville M.E.T. is a brand-new theatre group in the Huntsville area, and if their first production, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, is any indication, we are in for great things to come.  This production, being performed at the Academy for Academics and Arts through the end of the month, is an impressive first showing, complete with a jungle-full of life-size puppets and impressive effects.

This is an original adaptation, by Joshua Mitchell, of the most famous short stories in the collection published by Rudyard Kipling in the 1890s–the Mowgli adventures.  This script is fairly faithful to three of the short stories, so it includes elements that will be new to those only familiar with the Disney versions.  Still, it has all the usual characters–Mowgli; Baloo, the bear; Bagheera, the panther; Kaa, the python; and of course, Mowgli’s nemesis, Shere Khan, the Bengal tiger.  There are also wolves, jackals, birds, herd animals, and even an elephant, all lovingly created as life-size puppets.  That said, this is not a “puppet show”, it is a play about Mowgli’s adventures, that happens to use life-size puppets.  It concentrates on the plot, rather than being a spectacle,so there are times when it feels the dialogue drags on a bit, but M.E.T. has the right idea–use the tools to tell a story, rather than burying the story underneath smoke-and-mirrors.

Ethan Mitchell, as the director, has taken on a herculean task, not only staging and blocking this large cast of creatures throughout, but also teaching everyone how to work their puppets.  At times, the actors aren’t quite acting-the-puppet, but are instead acting-while-wearing-a-puppet-costume, so the animal movements aren’t always as continuous and realistic as one would like.  But, that’s seriously no knock on the fine efforts of everyone involved, because puppetry is a completely separate skill, and takes a lifetime to master.  Truly, some of the most beautiful moments in this show are when the savanna is alive with all the animals running, leaping, prowling, lurking, flying, and hunting. Mitchell did a very nice job of staging some beautiful pictures, and moving the story along.  This isn’t a musical (no singing), but there is plenty of music and dancing, and the choreography, by Claire Mitchell, is generally phenomenal.

Willem Butler, as the “Mowgli”, the only human character onstage for much of the play, does a very nice job.  He has energy and life, and interacts very well with the puppet animals.  I’m truly having a difficult time picking out other characters for special mention, because they are all equally impressive.  Marcus Gladney and Mel White play Mowgli’s friends and mentors, “Bagheera” and “Baloo”, and manage to give us distinct characters inside the puppets.  Robyn Mitchell, plays the head of “Kaa” (that is a BIG python), with wonderful menace.  Eugene Fleming, as the antagonist “Shere Khan”, probably has one of the best voices for his part, and is suitably intimidating.  I have to stop listing names somewhere for this very large cast, but they are all very, very good, and the ensemble work is incredible.

The technical elements pretty much begin and end with the puppets and costumes, which are amazing.  Months of work went into preparing this show, and it is clearly evident.  Ethan Mitchell designed at least six different styles of puppets–some worn, some wielded–and it is all impressive.  Huntsville M.E.T. has serious potential for hanging onto this jungle population and renting them out nationwide, because the quality is that good.  Given that the actors are clearly visible while wearing or wielding the puppets, their costumes and make-up are likewise well thought out, and match their characters nicely. The sets are a bit lacking in that there is no actual “jungle”.  When Mowgli is being kidnapped by the monkeys, the audience has no idea that he’s being carried along through the tree-tops, if we don’t catch the line in the dialogue mentioning it.  My five-year old kept asking me when he was going to see the jungle, finally deciding that when the cyclorama was lit in green, “that’s the jungle”.  That said, there are some impressive rolling set pieces to represent everything from “council rock”, to a set of ruins, a watering hole, and a human city.  The scene changes need a little more speed, but those sets are still very nice.  The lighting is exceptional, but could probably use some gobos (special-effect filters placed in front of the lenses to represent light shining through leaves, in this case).  There is also the minor problem that animals traveling through the audience cannot be seen and appreciated at all, because the house is in black-out.  But, given what was available, Martez Clemons, the lighting designer, really does a very nice job with setting the moods and times, and delineating the space.  The sound, on the other hand, needs help.  I suspect the body mics being worn are not of the highest quality, because the actors are constantly blowing them out, and distortion on the edges is almost constant.  Possibly lowering the amplification a bit would help, because most of the time, it was louder than it needed to be.  Given that the un-mic’d ensemble is almost perfectly audible, the amplification for the mic’d performers should just be a tiny assist, rather than blasting out of the speakers.

Overall, this is a truly impressive production, on many different levels–the creation and use of life-size puppets, the original adaptation, the costuming, the choreography, and frankly, the cajones for taking this on as a first production.  Huntsville M.E.T. has created big shoes for itself to fill, with their next play.  Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is running through the 30th, so there are plenty of chances remaining to see this production.  Show times and ticket information are at this link.

A (shorter) version of this review will appear on  Keep an eye on my profile page there.

To keep up with the weekly reviews and commentary from this “Huntsville Theatre Reviews” blog, any of the following will work:

  • Go to the Facebook page; hit “Like”, and then select “see first” from the “Like menu” drop-down.  The next time you log in after each article has been published, it should be at the top of your Facebook feed.
  • Follow the Twitter feed at #HSVTheatre.
  • Subscribe directly to this website with your email address below.