SOUTH SALT LAKE — I have been fortunate enough to see and be involved with some truly great theatre for young audiences (TYA). I have watched shows at national conferences and been involved with high-level collegiate tours. I worked for Orlando REP as part of my graduate work in TYA and have seen scores of TYA productions at a variety of venues. With that in mind, I can safely say that Parker Theatre’s production of The Pumpkin Giant is in the upper echelon of TYA that I am aware of. Indeed, the Parker Theatre’s work in general is among the best theatre in Utah. I have seen three shows there this year and walked away impressed three times.
This review is my 15th for UTBA in 2022, and a running theme through comedies and TYA productions I have reviewed has been a need to start the show with pacing and urgency. The Pumpkin Giant lacks this problem. Joanne Parker and Reuben Fox’s script starts with an ensemble that is riddled with the angst of a village being terrorized by a giant that eats all manner of things. From the opening scene, a rich ensemble brought dynamic and interesting characters to life that had me in stitches of laughter. There was a good amount of ad-libbing and playing to the audience, which felt grounded and true to the world of the play. It was a script that would fit neatly of the autumnal play slots of TYA companies across the country.
As I have come to expect from Parker Theatre, the set was absolutely stunning and a tribute to James Parker’s attention to neat detail. The stage featured flickering lantern footlights and a proscenium engraved with harvest symbols, all of which set a spooky seasonal tone for the show. The production also featured a rumbling sound and clever projections to foreshadow what the magnificent spooky giant may appear to be. While it should be advised that photosensitive viewers may want to sit this one out, it was a crafty effect that helped scenic transitions when the giant came to call.
I am a sucker for excellent puppetry, and the Parker Theatre’s puppet work brought another rich element to The Pumpkin Giant. Without spoiling any details, the Pumpkin Giant himself is worth the price of admission. It was high-caliber puppetry in line with the best I have seen anywhere, including BYU’s The Selfish Giant and the magnificent puppets of Finding Nemo at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Another fun puppet was a simple chicken hand puppet used to expert comedic effect by Ryan Kinville, who played Patroculus the potato farmer. There is a scene when the giant is coming to attack when Kinville runs outside to save this chicken puppet and hilariously interacts with it as if he is chasing it. Though a mere puppet, that chicken seemed to gain sentience through superior craft and performance.
For those unfamiliar with Mary E. Wilkins’s original story of The Pumpkin Giant, the basic narrative is that a giant has been terrorizing a kingdom. In response, the king has promised a knighthood and the hand of his daughter to the brave soul who slays the giant. Both the princess and Æneas (Patroculus’s son) are delightfully rotund and mocked for their glorious plumpness by more cold and unfeeling people of the kingdom. A brave knight comes intending to slay the giant, but it is actually the team of Patroculus and Æneas who save the day. By doing so, Patroculus earns knighthood and Æneas — who sacrifices himself for the princess — wins her hand. It is not a remarkably complex plot, but the character work that the actors developed within the story was phenomenal and enriching. The script has aspects that can be tough to deliver well on in a comedy, such as long lists, running jokes, and an off-beat (or even macabre) sense of humor. All told, it can be a challenge to have the right combination of actors to deliver the material well, but the cast of the Parker Theatre met this challenge.
It is hard to single out individual actors for such stellar ensemble work. It is a major tribute to the work of directors Joanne Parker and Spencer Hohl who cultivated actor work that was consistent, distinct between characters, and still playful, for the full show. In the dramatic climax, Patroculus throws a potato at the giant. Kinville is an actor, not a shortstop, and he missed the gaping maw of the giant. However, in a moment absolutely true to character, Æneas (played by Peter Wilkins) fetched the potato prop and began to scarf it down. It happened quickly (as the scene shifts rapidly when the giant is slain), but that kind of response only happens when a character is deep in the bones of an actor. It was the kind of comedic acting and over-the-top high stakes seriousness with which each actor played their part, and I could have pointed out another dozen well organized and acted moments within the show.
The Pumpkin Giant is the perfect way to kick off the autumn season. If you cannot get to Parker Theatre to see The Pumpkin Giant, I am not sure that fall will happen for you at all this year. The Pumpkin Giant was festive, fun, and even offers pumpkin ice cream at intermission for people who need their pumpkin spice fix. In a state filled with incredible theatre companies, the Parker Theatre is on the list of theatres that audiences really need to visit. Seeing The Pumpkin Giant is a great way to start.