More than child’s play

arts@sfbg.com

THEATER Enticing adults with a children’s story shouldn’t be too hard these days, with trails long since blazed by comic-book blockbusters, primetime cartoons, and the like. Still more to the point, the theater has a long tradition of adapting folk and fairy tales to sophisticated, not to say macabre purposes. Witness ACT’s hit run of The Black Rider or — in New York City — the current blood-splattered take on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes by Cornwall’s Kneehigh Theater, which last year offered its Brief Encounter to Bay Area audiences.

So what’s the matter with Coraline?

The stage adaptation of creepster fantasy novelist Neil Gaiman’s 2002 children’s story (also a 3-D animated film in 2009) proves a generally drab musical in SF Playhouse and director Bill English’s West Coast premiere, despite sporting an impressive ensemble of collaborators that includes playwright David Greenspan (book) and the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt (music and lyrics). It’s all the more surprising given the inherent attraction of the material, which comes shot through with quirky staging possibilities and rich, dark veins of psychology and existentialism.

The title character is a sharp, gutsy little girl and only child (played by the confident and tuneful if somewhat too flinty Maya Donato, alternating nights with Julia Belanoff) born to a pair of middle class English parents (Jackson Davis and Stacy Ross). Their eccentric neighbors include a pair of aging actresses (Susi Damilano and Maureen McVerry) and a Russian showman (Brian Degan Scott) who carries around a mouse-circus tent.

Coraline and her parents live in one half of a converted old house (a spectral pop-out figure looming in the back of English and Matt Vuolo’s slightly Seuss-ian scenic design). The other half remains empty, supposedly, separated from the inquisitive Coraline by an intriguing door leading immediately onto a brick wall. Naturally, this proves no impasse, soon offering the little girl entrance into a parallel universe where the neighborhood cat (Brian Yates Sharber) suddenly commands the power of speech and her “other” parents (Davis and Ross again) — with black buttons sewn into their eye sockets — eagerly await her arrival.

Coraline at first appreciates this Other World where, for one thing, people seem to get her name right, instead of insisting on calling her Caroline all the time. But the place, which she herself notes is more like “an idea” than a physical reality, also comes to threaten her profoundly. Meeting a group of lost children who’ve become forgetful ghosts, she comes to understand that her Other Mother is in fact a wicked pursuer bent on snatching her soul, and who has meanwhile abducted her real parents. With the help of the independent-minded but sympathetic cat, Coraline will summon the wherewithal to beat back this threat, but the experience — corresponding to a child’s first confrontation with the fact of her own mortality — leaves her changed, more knowing, in touch with her “authentic” self.

Musing on the latent, vaguely Heideggerian content of this “children’s story,” however, turns out to be just one way of passing the time over the course of 90 otherwise-uneventful minutes. Musically, the play begins with a tinkly little overture on toy pianos by the ensemble, before transitioning to off-stage (and somewhat muted) piano accompaniment by music director Robert Moreno. Merritt’s lightly humorous songs seesaw between naïve surface gestures and intimations of roiling depths. But the shrewd charm of the songs themselves can’t carry a show preoccupied with balancing the story’s cuteness and its potential shock value, and leaning too heavily toward the former. (It may have been a shrewd move of the original New York production to have cast an adult, namely actress Jayne Houdyshell, in the title role, thereby holding out the potential for greater subtlety and irony at the center of the story.)

The material and music notwithstanding, the production’s too timid approach to the violence and dread in the story tends to fracture the action into a series of adorable bits and self-consciously “playful” wickedness. The Brothers Grimm or even Hans Christian Andersen it ain’t, though you can’t help feeling it should have been.

CORALINE

Through Jan. 15; $30-50

SF Playhouse

533 Sutter, SF

(415) 677-9596

www.sfplayhouse.org