Quintessence Theatre Group, dedicated to the classics, stages most of its work in a bare-bones setting. Whenever I see the repertory troupe in action, I’m often holding two sides of the rope in a tug of war.
On the one side, I’m pulling for the young Mount Airy company, in its fourth season, to get a bigger budget so that its production values can meet the high quality of the performances. On the other side, I’m pulling for Quintessence — a company with so little scenery, the playbill frequently lists no set designer – to stay just the way it is.
That’s because in its current state, Quintessence consistently exploits the power of well-done theater to draw us in with actors, a couple of chairs and maybe some tables and a lamp here and there. I’m a sucker for a great set, but who can resist the moment when there’s little more than you and someone in front of you, and the magic happens anyway?
As an example, Quintessence comes through again with a sweet production of “The Wind in the Willows,” a fantasy taken from the 1908 children’s book by Kenneth Grahame, the Scotsman’s most famous work. It’s the troupe’s first family show, with all the typical trimmings: virtually none. Audiences sit on two sides of a narrow stage that runs through the Sedgwick Theater playing area, and with a black cart and few other accoutrements, the cast of 12 takes us on the adventures of a natty rat (Daniel Fredrick), a wide-eyed mole (Sean Close), a wizened badger (Jake Blouch) and their trouble-making pal, a recklessly rich toad (Khris Davis).
The four actors excel in their performances and they need to. As in most Quintessence shows, “The Wind in the Willows” features handsome costumes (by Jane Casanave) and solid lighting (David Sexton), but the real focus is on the story and the performers. The supporting cast is also strong, with standouts Sean Bradley as a forlorn horse and Josh Carpenter as the malevolent chief of a bunch of weasels.
Jamison Foreman, a local actor, composer and musician who is becoming more seasoned every time I see him on a stage, plays both an otter and the piano – this version of “The Wind in the Willows” has sprightly music by British theater artist Jeremy Sams. While it’s not a musical, it’s a play with substantial songs. (The cast has a strong unified voice.) Foreman is the show’s music director and also created orchestrations.
The adaptation of Grahame’s novel is by Alan Bennett, the British playwright who won a best-play Tony Award in 2006 for “The History Boys.” His “Wind in the Willows” is spunky if too long, at two-and-a-half hours. In the staging of Quintessence artistic director Alexander Burns, it gets a clever reading with some nice and simple effects. The spirited aura the cast creates is impressive. I’m still tugging on both sides of that stupid rope, though.
“The Wind in the Willows,” produced by Quintessence Theatre Group, runs through Jan. 4 at the Sedgwick Theater, Germantown Avenue between Durham Street and Mount Airy Avenue. 215-987-4450 or www.quintessencetheatre.org.