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Wily Ways to Use Childhood Dread : Youth theater: ‘Wiley and the Hairy Man’ and ‘Stone Soup,’ as presented by SCR’s Young Conservatory Players, use imagination and buffoonery in trying to capture the audience.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Hairy Man will get you if you don’t watch out. Chills and giggles are in store in “Wiley and the Hairy Man” and “Stone Soup,” a double bill for ages 5 and up presented by South Coast Repertory’s Young Conservatory Players. It opens today at Founders Hall in the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

“ ‘Wiley and the Hairy Man’ is an environmental play,” director Greg Atkins said. “It takes place in the swamps where the little boy Wiley goes to cut wood. His mother warns him to watch out for the Hairy Man, who has already taken Wiley’s father. The basic plot has Wiley trying to fool the Hairy Man three times so he won’t get eaten.”

Luckily, Wiley’s mother has magic power of her own and helps by cooking up spells in her big conjuring pot.

Even though the show plays on “that childhood dread of the bogyman,” Atkins does not think that children will be too frightened.

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“One of my initial fears was that the Hairy Man would come out, and we wouldn’t have a dry seat in the house,” he joked. “But Wiley keeps tripping him up, tricking him, so although in the beginning he is very scary, as the audience sees Wiley fool him, he becomes a little more buffoonish each time.”

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Matthew Tague, 10, who plays Wiley. “The Hairy Man starts yelling and gets all this hair around, (but) he won’t be so scary in the end, ‘cause he gets tricked.”

Matthew also enjoys knowing that the audience will cheer him on as the good guy. “The kids are like on your side and everything,” he said.

This is Matthew’s first Young Conservatory Players show. He started acting when he was in preschool--"We did little performances, and I really liked it"--and has been enjoying it ever since.

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His biggest challenge in “Wiley”? “I have to climb a tree, and the tree is a kid. It was hard, but I’m used to it now.”

Unlike “Wiley,” which is done in “pul sating, chanting” rhyme with a “swamp-critter chorus,” “Stone Soup” is a straight play, said Atkins, who has adapted the French tale to an American South setting as a companion piece for “Wiley.”

Instead of being about three hungry French soldiers who trick a meal out of reluctant villagers, Atkins’ version changes them into Union soldiers during the Civil War and sets the action on a Southern plantation.

Helping his cast understand how people behaved then was part of the preparation. “We’ve had some interesting conversations about what it must have been like during those times,” Atkins said.

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One difficulty came when “two characters have to go off to kill and pluck a chicken. The actors had a hard time conveying that.

“Their first reaction was ‘eeeyooo.’ When we got our prop chicken, with a few feathers stuck on it,” he said, “they had a hard time dealing with it.”

Fay Viggers, who plays Mammy in “Wiley and the Hairy Man” and Miz Forrest, the plantation matriarch, chuckled over the chicken-plucking incident. An opera singer and graduate of South Coast Repertory’s adult professional conservatory, Viggers said she is finding her first children’s theater production “really fun.”

“The kids have such wonderful imagination, and they’re so free-spirited, you have to keep up,” she said.

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Viggers said down-to-earth Mammy in “Wiley” is close to who she is in real life, so she found playing strict Miz Forrest to be “more of a challenge. It was nice to play someone with a little mean streak in her,” she said, laughing.

Other challenges arose for both director and cast. In “Wiley and the Hairy Man,” written by Jack Stokes, “the tempo needs to create the excitement and the drive of the play,” Atkins said. “It’s done in rhyme, but I didn’t want it to become singsongy, so we worked a lot on the rhythms, the rhythm of the land. We did a lot of theater games--these are city kids, and some have no concept of the darkness and foreboding (atmosphere) of a swamp. We listened to tapes, and I tried to get them to be ‘earthy.’

“We did lots of floor work,” he added, “sort of becoming one with the muck.”

The set had to be versatile enough to serve both plays, because there is no intermission. So veteran designer Dwight Richard Odle created a “gigantic ground cover that can be played in and on and around,” Atkins said. “For ‘Stone Soup,’ the actors pull down the ground covering, and it reveals a portico, door and windows of a Southern mansion. The conjuring pot is used as the soup pot.”

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Atkins, 36--an instructor, director and actor who works with the Young Conservatory Players and other adult and youth theaters--finds the youth groups to be the most rewarding.

“People say if you work with kids you stay young,” he said. “It’s so true.”

He is happy with his 10-member cast, ranging from 10 years old to adult. “We’ve been in rehearsal about six weeks, " he said, “but that’s only three times a week. Add up the hours and it’s not a lot.

“But these are almost all students of YCP’s three-year program, so I don’t have to teach acting. Sometimes for open auditions, you spend a lot of time teaching kids upstage from downstages, but these are pros.”

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The South Coast Repertory Young Conservatory Players present “Wiley and the Hairy Man” and “Stone Soup” at the Orange County Performing Arts Center’s Founders Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Directed by Greg Atkins. Anna Thron, production assistant. Ken Jensen, stage manager. With Meghan Cass, Coletta Garrett, Mike Hampton, Jennifer Jacob, Vera Levitt, Jonny Riley, Jon Schnitzer, Matthew Tague, Fay Viggers and Charles Vogl. Show times: 2 and 7:30 p.m. today; 2 and 4 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. March 9 , and 2 and 4 p.m. March 10. Tickets: $8 to $10. Information: (714) 957-4033.


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