A Boy's Life

The Yellow Boat isn't just good children's theater. It's good theater, period.

When playwright David Saar's eight-year-old son Benjamin died of AIDS-related complications in 1987, Saar did what most parents who lose a child do. He grieved. Fortunately for contemporary theater, he also wrote a play in tribute to Benjamin titled The Yellow Boat.

As the artistic director of one of the nation's premiere children's theater companies, Childsplay in Tempe, Arizona, Saar had all the tools for making good theater at his fingertips: a fine ensemble of actors, a simple black box theater space and a work that had to be written. For the uninitiated, the thought of children's theater may conjure up notions of goofy productions of princess and dragon type fare. But the burgeoning of children's theater programs in universities, and an increase in the number of theater professionals eager to hone their skills in the young audience arena, has changed all that. Simply put, children's theater is no longer slight, fairy tale fluff; the better children's plays can even draw audiences that include child-free adults.

The Yellow Boat, which stylishly utilizes modern devices, is one of those plays: Told as Benjamin's story, its scenes move fluidly from Benjamin's bedroom to his schoolyard, and a chorus of actors step in to play friends and doctors. In the original production, as well as the successful Seattle Children's Theatre version, the role of Benjamin was performed by an adult. However, for the production presently being mounted by Express Theatre, Houston's only professional company devoted to theater for young audiences, director Patti Bean decided to have a child play Benjamin. That goes against current theatrical wisdom, which has it that a skilled adult actor can generally interpret the nuances of being a child better than an actual child can. But Bean has succeeded remarkably well in directing Jay Zeidman as Benjamin, creating an emotional center for a play that has the ability to mix humor with pathos and joy with grief.

The simplicity of The Yellow Boat is part of its appeal, and in that spirit, the play begins with Benjamin's birth, represented by Zeidman holding a yellow doll that the adult characters coo over. "Seven pounds, six ounces," says his father proudly. His parents, concerned with their infant's incessant crying, take him to the emergency room one night to discover that Benjamin is a hemophiliac; subsequently, he receives the first of many blood transfusions, which are represented by long strips of red cloth.

As he grows, Benjamin develops a talent for drawing, which he exercises at every opportunity. Zeidman characterizes Benjamin's close relationship with his mother and father nicely, and it's possible to see the unique bond between the loving parents and their happy boy. The yellow boat of the play's title is first mentioned in a song Benjamin's mother sings him, and then is mentioned again in a story told by his father. The yellow boat, either drawn in the air or created out of a modular block, serves as Benjamin's transition between scenes, and also as his special signature. "But I want to be captain," pleads one of Benjamin's schoolmates, eager to try her hand at the yellow boat, "Go draw your own boat," says Benjamin, with more than a little bravado.

A news briefs about the onset of AIDS foreshadows the tragedy to come: One of Benjamin's blood transfusions is infected with the HIV virus. Benjamin gets ill quickly. It is in these difficult and deeply felt scenes that Bean and her cast shine admirably, illustrating the gulf that separates the healthy from the sick and the ignorant from the educated. In a move that Saar has said crushed the real-life Benjamin, his private school kicks him out, and his friends stop coming to visit. Zeidman accurately reflects the confusion and withdrawal that occur when he's forced to leave his playmates. As soon as his illness is announced, the parents of Benjamin's friends bisect the stage with a plastic curtain, intoning platitudes without any sincerity: "Anything we can do to help," they say, "just ask."

The progression of Benjamin's disease is made clear through the chorus, which illustrates Benjamin's pain in simple choreography, and the doctors who update his parents on his worsening condition. But even in the darkest moments Saar's humor comes through; the play is not a chronicle of Benjamin's death, but rather a celebration of his life. When Benjamin's liver begins to fail, and he's so distraught that he refuses to speak, a child therapist named Joy brings a breath of originality into the hospital's sterile environment. Joy, played by Cheryl Pierce, paints a mural on Benjamin's window, she makes fun of the doctors and she explains the procedures that Benjamin must endure in simple terms. "This is a magical medical circus," she tells Benjamin conspiratorially, "a really big show in a really small place." In her slightly goofy character who understands Benjamin's need not to talk, Pierce is right on.

The production's startling visual elements -- colored scarves that float in and out, the bits of cloth that make up Benjamin's transfusions and the simple costuming of his parents -- Mom in red and Dad in blue -- culminate with a powerful force by play's end. Benjamin's yellow boat, the same color as the scarves that represent his infected transfusion, is a metaphor. Children recognize their parents' grief, and Saar was able to translate that ability into his play. Like the text itself, Express Theatre's marvelous production triumphs in its urgency as a story, and in its simplicity in telling it.

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