On Theater: Join 'Ben' for lively fantasy

Daily Pilot

What if anything you painted came to life? You'd be considerably better off, but you'd really have to watch your back.

That's the crux of "Ben and the Magic Paintbrush," the latest fantasy adventure from South Coast Repertory's Theater for Young Audiences series. It'll have the kiddies cheering its heroes and (on occasion) jeering one of youth theater's most deliciously detestable villains.

The title character, a young orphan boy (Stewart Calhoun), has this unique ability. He hopes to use it to improve the lot of himself and his sister (Gloria Garayua), who subsist from his drawings and her impersonation of a bronze statue. Both young performers are quite effective, with Garayua drawing extra credit for her gilded pantomime.

Into their path swoops the evil Cynthia Crawly (Shannon Holt in a bravura performance), who, with her doltish husband (SCR veteran Richard Doyle), hope to amass a fortune from the youngster's talent.

Holt devours the scenery in a wonderfully evil characterization that'll have the youngsters thinking of Cruella De Vil from "101 Dalmatians." The creepy crawlies elicit both revulsion and laughter.

There are others involved on stage, principally "NYPD Blue" alumnus Bill Brochtrup, splendid as a rival painter with a Dali mustache who joins forces with the kids. Veralyn Jones is a triple treat as the queen of Bohemia, a gnarly old woman and, in a bit of a stretch, a mustachioed policeman in a cameo that'll have you double-checking your program.

Director Stefan Novinski employs his considerably creative imagination in his staging of Bathsheba Doran's adaptation of an ancient Chinese fable. With Keith Mitchell's wondrous setting providing the oohs and aahs, this "Paintbrush" is an artistic delight.

Sara Ryung Clement's imaginative costuming and Tom Ruzika's solid lighting effects combine to help make the show an enjoyable experience for young people and their parents.

"Ben and the Magic Paintbrush" isn't the only SCR show aimed at younger audiences this weekend and next. There's also a "sequel" to a Shakespearean tragedy available.

When Romeo and Juliet died in a double suicide, that was the end of it, right? Not exactly, according to Sharman Macdonald, whose daughter — actress Keira Knightley — came up with an original idea. Macdonald turned it into a play, "After Juliet," which tells how the deaths affected the survivors of Shakespeare's tragedy.

This weekend and next, South Coast Repertory's Teen Players will present that post-mortem under the direction of Hisa Takakuwa, director of the SCR Theatre Conservatory.

"I felt to be able to take a story they knew very well to the next step — into a different world — would be an exciting process for our actors," Takakuwa explains. "The play combines what could be called 'street language' with highly poetic classical language, and I knew it would be a real challenge to straddle those worlds."

The Capulets and the Montagues will continue their rivalry in SCR's Nicholas Studio. Performances are 4 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 4 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. June 4 and 5, and 1 and 4 p.m. June 6. Tickets are $9 and may be ordered by calling the box office at (714) 708-5555.

If You Go What: "Ben and the Magic Paintbrush"Where: South Coast Repertory, Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa MesaWhen: 7 p.m. Fridays, 11 a.m., 2 and 4:30 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 and 4:30 p.m. Sundays through June 6Cost: $17 to $39Call: (714) 708-5555

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