STANDING UP In the face of fear and danger.
Deep in the Appalachian swamp, young Wiley (Luke Stickney, winningly) lives among tree toads, alligators, and plenty of magical spirits. But to Wiley, the scariest thing out there in the swamp, the thing that keeps him shaking under his covers, is a man. It's the Hairy Man, feared by everybody in the area, and to stand up to him, Wiley is going to have to find a courage he never knew he had, in Wiley and the Hairy Man. Performed by and for young actors — as well as one grown-up Hairy Man (Michael Toth) — it is a production of the ever-delightful Children's Museum and Theatre of Maine, under the direction of Reba Short.
Wiley has some great allies in his quest: His Mammy (the vivacious Michela Micalizio) is the most powerful "conjure woman" in the whole southwest county. She can hurry up the sun, make the table set itself, and turn a tree trunk into rubber, and she's eager to teach her spells to Wiley. Wiley also has a faithful little hound dog (Elizabeth Tardiff), from whom the Hairy Man can't get away fast enough. But Wiley has trouble learning his Mammy's conjures, and his hound can't drive off the Hairy Man forever. So to outsmart his foe, Wiley will have to learn and use his own strengths.
Wiley's story plays out on the Dress Up Theatre's long, narrow set of trees, hollow logs, and Spanish moss, and the windows and door of Wiley's house flit playfully into place in the hands of six lively Chorus members (Emma Dwelley, Marina Brandao, Lilliana Brandao, Phoebe Little, Samantha Witkowski, and Zara Boss). The Chorus also acts out the spells of Mammy, Wiley, and the Hairy Man, making a tree slither with snakes and starting a snowstorm indoors, and it sings us through the action and warnings for our hero: "He done got you Pappy and he's gonna get you." The Chorus members, with their lovely voices, sing a sinuous score written, impressively, by the young ensemble itself (with music direction by Brittany Cook). As Wiley leap-frogs and scrambles through the swamp, heeding the Chorus's ominous warning to "Watch out, Wiley!" the pace is snappy and the suspense high.
As our young hero, Stickney is earnest, candid, sharp-witted, and often very funny. He's got a great handle on the Appalachian Southern accent and lingo, and he does a fine job showing both Wiley's quivering fear and how he gains the courage to, for example, yell from a treetop that the Hairy Man's got the "ugliest, slimiest, no-tree-climbiest feet in the whole southwest county."
As Wiley's trusty dog, Tardiff is a fierce delight of a little brown hound. With floppy brown ears, a big mischievous smile, and a very convincing pant, she races nimbly in hot pursuit of his master's nemesis. Wiley's other important friend, his Mammy, is deliciously dynamic in the hands of Micalizio. With her kinky tresses, moon-huge eyes, and musical swampland accent, she is a real firecracker of a character actor and physical comedian.
And as the infamous Hairy Man, red-wigged, filthy-shirted Toth has the timeless funny-frightfulness of so many favorite modern fairy tales. Roaring one minute and quivering with hurt feelings the next, he ultimately shows us the pitiable heart of his mean spirit.