Plan-B Theatre’s ‘River. Swamp. Cave. Mountain.’ tackles big questions

Ashley Marian Ramos as Izzy (right) and Benjamin Young as JJ. Photo Courtesy: Rick Pollock

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, Oct. 17, 2017 (Gephardt Daily) — Playwright Elaine Jarvik says of her new kids’ show for Plan-B Theatre: “So I think I am just the right person to write a play for children that explores death and grief — because I sure wish someone had put on that play for me when I was a kid.”

“River. Swamp. Cave. Mountain.,” making its world premiere as he theater company’s fifth annual Free Elementary School Tour, plays through Nov. 17. The tour will reach 15,000 students at 40 elementary schools in 10 counties from Weber in the north to Garfield in the south.

The play tells the story of 5-year-old JJ and 8-year-old Izzy, siblings who have recently lost their grandmother, and the journey they take to try to make sense of loss, grief, death and life.

The author, Jarvik, is a former Deseret News journalist who usually writes plays for adults, and her writing prowess shines through here.

The story she depicts is straightforward: JJ and Izzy’s mom says that “when someone dies, you go on a journey,” and “When you come back from a journey you’ll be different from when you left.” So the siblings embark on an imaginary trajectory that, as the title suggests, takes them to a river, a swamp, a cave and a mountain.

Along the way, they find ways to communicate about their grandmother’s death. JJ has some questions for Izzy, such as “I stuck my tongue out at her, is that why she died?” and “Why do people die?” And Izzy, who thinks she knows it all, must grapple with the issue that she refuses to sing after her grandma’s death, since “If I can’t sing with grandma, I’m not going to sing at all.”

In keeping with the clean but effective writing, the other production elements are simple but work well. The 35-minute show, created specifically for grades K-3 and their teachers and families but also meant to be accessible to 4-year-olds, is directed by Cheryl Cluff. She wisely keeps the action moving briskly and has her actors fully utilize the taped out playing space and minimal props.

Because Cluff makes sure the audience’s focus is on JJ and Izzy’s fun journey through the spaces they invent — the river, swamp, cave, and mountain — the discussions they have about their grandma seem almost a by-product of the main action. And that works really well, because a strong message is communicated without the play seeming didactic.

The actors, Ashley Marian Ramos as Izzy and Benjamin Young as JJ, also do their work keeping the tone light and fun, and also keeping the kids in the audience engaged and involved.

When the characters do stumble up against the big questions about death and grief, they don’t let the energy of the piece drop and become maudlin, but depict the reasons why grandma’s death is making them sad cleanly and simply then move on whatever objective is next, as kids do. I also enjoyed the trajectory that as JJ and Izzy get further into their journey, they also become closer as brother and sister.

The design by Aaron Swenson is also unfussy. The costumes are playful, with fun little touches such as JJ’s dinosaur hoodie, Izzy’s sparkly high-tops, and the superhero capes they both wear. Across the board, there’s a decision that I enjoyed that though we know these actors are playing kids, the actors, director and designer depict the essence of being a child rather than try to trying to go to far into fooling the audience into thinking they are actually watching kids.

And the message of the story is also a simple but effective one: that whatever you feel about grief is OK, and it’s good to talk about it with family or friends.

As Izzy says, “Mom says, when you go on a journey, you always find something magical at the end.”

There will be public performances of the show at City Library branches, which are free, with no tickets required. These are:

Thursday, Oct. 19, 2 p.m. – Main Library Story Room, 210 E. 400 South, SLC

Friday, Oct. 20, 2 p.m. – Glendale Branch, 1375 S. Concord St., SLC

Saturday, Nov. 4, 11 a.m. – Sweet Branch, 455 F St., SLC

Saturday, Nov. 11, 2 p.m. – Chapman Branch, 577 S. 900 West, SLC

Saturday, Nov. 18, 11 a.m. – Marmalade Branch, 280 W. 500 North, SLC

Saturday, Nov. 18, 2 p.m. – Anderson-Foothill Branch, 1135 S. 2100 East, SLC

There will also be three public performances at Davis County libraries, presented by Davis Arts Council. These are also free, with no tickets required:

Thursday, Oct. 26, 4 p.m. – Centerville Library Auditorium, 45 S. 400 West, Centerville

Friday, Oct. 27, 4 p.m. – Central Davis County Library Auditorium, 155 Wasatch Drive, Layton

Friday, Nov. 17, 4 p.m. – Roy Library Black Box Theatre, 2039 W. 4000 South, Roy

The tour provides free, in-school performance, exposing elementary students to live theatre—many for the first time—and encourages pre­ and post­show discussion of complex issues.

For more information on the show, click here.

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