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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

First Stage Teaches a Lesson on Bullying

Theater Review

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Judging by the full house of adults and children completely engrossed (and quiet) throughout the Saturday matinee of The 100 Dresses, (running through April 17 at the Marcus Center's Todd Wehr Theater), teasing, ridicule and general bullying remain all too timely and unfortunate topics today.

Thanks to First Stage's uniformly excellent translation to the stage from the book by Eleanor Estes, the lessons contained within 100 Dresses are easy to follow if difficult to watch at times. "Difficult" in that the story of the young Polish immigrant girl, Wanda, thrust into America circa 1938 (during the Great Depression), is a reminder to all of the lasting effects of childhood bullying.

As Wanda tries to ingratiate herself into the group of girls (to no avail), the cruelty increases as she wears the same dress to school every day yet tells of having "100 dresses in her closet." She is a perfect target for the leader of the pack, rich girl Peggy. Maddie, on the other hand, slowly has misgivings about the ongoing teasing, which has irrevocable consequences for Wanda and her family (no spoilers here).

Most impressive is the cast of 10, featuring three adult actors and at this performance, the "Flash Gordon" cast of children. Bo Johnson, Mary MacDonald Kerr and Sheri Williams Pannell all turn in fine performances. The children however, shine throughout, in particular Emily Newmark as Maddie with her growing conscience, Kendal Briscoe as the sneering Peggy, and in a gentle performance of quiet restraint, Katherine Pollnow as Wanda. Credit also goes to the other child actors who did a fine job of fully developing their characters: Kendall White, Sebastian Weigman, Ben Braun and Max Mullen as Wanda's older brother Jacob. First Stage associate artistic director John Maclay directs with a detailed eye for how children talk to and relate to one another, aided by Mary Hall Surface's adept adaptation.

As 100 Dresses illustrates, sometimes the hardest lessons learned are those that challenge us to look within ourselves, rather than at the differences of others.
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