“Watership Down” presented by Lifeline Theatre
Lifeline Theatre continues their grand tradition of bringing literary works to the stage in clever and artistic ways with their new production of Richard Adams’ 1972 masterpiece, “Watership Down.” Adapted from the novel my husband refers to as “The Bunny Epic” by Lifeline company member John Hildreth, Lifeline’s “Watership Down” takes what feels like a brand new look at a childrens classic.
Under the savvy direction of Katie McLean Hainsworth, there are no fuzzy bunny costumes with rabbit ears to be found in this production – the actors wear street clothes in muted tones and embody the physicality of rabbits through leaping, stances, head nudges, and stamping. It’s this key element that makes the show feel incredibly modern, and not at all cheesy. Watching a group of adult actors in full-fledged bunny costumes hopping around would have been fine for a production of a story aimed strictly for children, but “Watership Down” has always been just as much a book for adults as for young people, and this stage production carries on that tradition. The scenes where the rabbits tell the stories of their mythology and the adventures of El-ahrairah the trickster rabbit are differentiated using artistically designed animal headpieces, and it’s a really effective way to transition from reality to stories.
In Adams’ story – which he originally created to entertain his own daughters on long car trips – a group of rabbits, led by Hazel (played here by an endearing Paul S. Holmquist) decide to leave their warren (aka, home) after Hazel’s younger brother Fiver has a terrible vision of bad things happening to their land and to all of them. As their warren is led by a Chief Rabbit and a hierarchical rabbit government, most of the rabbits don’t listen to their warning. Undeterred, Hazel, Fiver and a few of their friends decide to take the dangerous trek to find a safer home. Along the way, they encounter wild animals, men with guns, dogs, cats, and two other notable groups of rabbits. The first group has turned their backs on their rabbit folklore and a blind eye to the fact that “the men” who leave them piles of food are also slowly killing them. The second group is practically a military operation, where each newborn rabbit is violently marked for life, and this mark will determine their social standing for the rest of their lives. The rabbits find themselves at a heaven on earth known as Watership Down, but being as they’re all male rabbits, need to find female rabbits to start a new warren. With no other options, they have to get into the military-esque warren and convince some lady bunnies to come back to Watership Down with them without getting caught by warren’s vicious forces.
The ensemble cast does double and triple duty playing a variety of characters – mostly rabbit, some human, and some other species. Of particular note – Christopher M. Walsh is a strong but tender Bigwig, Mandy Walsh is a sympathetic Hyzenthlay, and Jesse Manson hands-down steals the show as a wacky but trustworthy bird named Kehaar. The multi-level set designed by Wenhai Ma and the lighting design by Sean Mallary enable the show to move along at a brisk pace as at least a dozen locations (from heavenly to hellish) are covered during the rabbits journey.
At a little over two hours (with intermission) the show might be too much for the littlest audience members, but the children in attendance at the preview I attended appeared fascinated and like they were following along just fine. My husband and I both enjoyed the show tremendously. I’m halfway through re-reading the book at present, and the only major differences I noticed were a few minimal characters being cut – which is a change I totally understand.
The production is clever, modern, and terrifically entertaining – much like the book. I suggest you read said book, and see said production. Seeing how a book can be smartly adapted to the stage can be an awesome and eye-opening experience.