Mo Willems’ Classic Stars Dynamic Duo Bri Reads & Iyana Colby
by Nicholas Leither
Vaccination cards in hand, negative symptom check complete, and a temperature gun to the head at the door, my two kids and I entered the dark theater with big smiles under Kn95s.
That atmosphere at Bay Area Children’s Theatre in Berkeley is always electric. This is theater in the round with no seating assignments, making your seat choice a dilemma. Would the front row over there be best? Or, would that make us more likely to be roped into audience-participation antics? What about over there, second row? Or is that tall dude going to sit right in front of us?
It’s the kind of thing one could really worry about, which is what you would do if you were Gerald the Elephant. Piggie, after all, would more than likely just plop down wherever and be happy with what she’s got.
And that’s writer Mo Willems’ premise in “Elephant and Piggie’s We Are in a Play!” The always-neurotic Gerald overreacts, bringing on fun musical numbers, and leading to Gerald’s understanding his exaggeration or interpretive error. When Piggie tells him, “I have to go,” he bemoans her leaving, begs her to stay, sings to her… only for her to finally tell him that she simply needs to the go the bathroom!
A series of similar episodes lead to Gerald and Piggie realizing—in a meta-theatrical moment—that they are, in fact, in a play. The lights come up on the audience and they stare and wave. The kids in the audience love it, and when the actors start telling us to wave our hands or clap, they tease the parents for being slow to participate.
And, just as I thought, those in the front row are more likely to be picked for short moments of audience participation, proving that Gerald’s tendency to overthink does pay off—at least for me.
While it’s always fun to see familiar characters come to life from the page to the stage, really, in this show, it’s the music that makes it. This is largely due to the talented Iyana Colby, with a commanding and delightful voice. She does a nuanced job balancing Gerald’s neuroses with stage command.
Iyana’s Gerald meets energetic and electric Bri Reads, a former international preschool teacher, who certainly knows how to entertain a crowd with enthusiasm. They have chemistry and mix well, encouraged by strong direction from Scottie Woodard.
Usually, one character stars, but here, Gerald and Piggie somehow manage to do it together. Their performances complement the show’s point—that a balanced friendship reigns supreme, despite disagreements, misunderstandings, and, of course, two completely different species.
On the sidewalk after the show, I asked the real critics, my kids, what they thought. My six-year-old, Itasca, said, “The singing!” My four-year-old, River, who is in a phase where he thinks poop and farts are epically hilarious, said, “The part where Piggy had to go to the potty!”
Really, Bay Area Children’s Theatre is always a delight, always fun, and always great fodder for the imaginations of the young. And after two tough and isolating years, “Elephant and Piggie” makes a perfect return to live theater.
“Elephant and Piggie’s We Are in a Play!”—book by Mo Willems, script and lyrics by Mo Willems, music by Deborah Wicks La Puma, directed by Scottie Woodard, by Bay Area Children’s Theatre, 2055 Center Street, Berkeley. Info: BACTheatre.org – to Sunday, October 23, 2022.
Cast: Iyana Colby, Bri Reads, Morgan Claire Roberts, Ali Travis, Courtney Anne Nelson, and Jordan Taylor.
Banner photo: Bri Reads & Iyana Colby. Photos by Ben Krantz