Friday, May 16, 2014

A Real "Stinker" of a Play

About the Authors: Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith

Lane Smith and Jon Scieszka
Jon Scieszka (pronounced She-ska; it rhymes with Fresca) and Lane Smith first collaborated together on The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. Their attempt to get the book published wasn’t a walk in the park, however; publisher after publisher rejected the manuscript, saying it was “too dark” or “too sophisticated.” Finally an editor at Viking Books responded to Scieszka’s cheeky humor and Lane’s quirky illustrations and published it in 1989.

In 1992, Viking Books published Scieszka and Lane’s second book, The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, which critics praised not only for its whimsy but also for its insightful send up of the strict morality found in fairy tales. Many now consider the book to be a masterpiece of postmodern children’s fiction. The Stinky Cheese Man has won many awards, including a Caldecott Honor and The New York Times Best Illustrated Book Award. In 2002, a special tenth anniversary edition was released with an additional story added (“The Boy Who Cried Cow Patty”).

Altogether, Scieszka and Smith have collaborated on eight picture books and eight Time Warp Trio books. Lane's wife, Molly Leach, has designed all of their picture books.
Everyone knows fairy tales. They’re the stories full of wonder and enchantment that usually have a happy ending: the good characters live happily ever after, and the bad characters get what they deserve (hence the phrase “a fairy tale ending”). But The Stinky Cheese Man doesn’t have any of those. Instead, it’s full of fairly stupid tales.

Playwright John Glore based the stage production on the 1992 award-winning book of the same name by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith. The play stars Jack (of beanstalk fame) as the trusty narrator. But, despite his resolve, he just can’t get all the fairy tale characters on the same page. In fact, before he can even tell the first story, a little red hen interrupts him: she’s on a mission to find someone to help her bake some bread. The other chicken, Chicken Licken, isn’t sure when she’s supposed to enter the stage either, but she has bigger things to worry about—she’s sure the sky is falling.

When Jack does manage to get things on track, the tales he tells are completely ridiculous. Stories like “The Princess and the Bowling Ball,” “The Other Frog Prince” and “The Tortoise and the Hair” come to life on stage and poke fun at the age-old fairy tales on which they’re based.

Take “Cinderumpelstiltskin,” for example. In it, a beautiful maiden, forced to wear rags and clean her wicked stepsisters’ home, wants nothing more than to go to the ball in a fancy dress and glass slippers so she can meet a prince. But it’s not a fairy godmother who visits her. Instead, it’s a wee man with a mysterious name and the ability to spin straw into gold. It’s not an ideal situation for either of them.

Then there’s “The Stinky Cheese Man,” the titular tale. The little man in this story (made out of only cheese, a couple of olives for eyes and a piece of bacon for a mouth) is just as sassy as the gingerbread man from the known fairy tale—except that no one wants to eat him.

As Jack navigates these warped stories, he suddenly finds himself face to face with his biggest problem yet—his own story. After all, there’s a giant roaming around looking for revenge. And in The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales all bets are off…and anything can happen.

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Bringing Stinky to the Stage

The Stinky Cheese Man set rendering by designer Susan Gratch.
Playwright and SCR’s Associate Artistic Director John Glore has been a fan of The Stinky Cheese Man ever since his young niece introduced him to it years ago. He first adapted the book for the stage in 2005, and it premiered in SCR’s Theatre for Young Audiences season that year. While adapting the book, Glore was not only interested in the way The Stinky Cheese Man deconstructs and parodies famous children’s stories—but also how it plays with the reader’s experience.

Cow costume rendering by designer Ann Closs-Farley.
“One of the things that’s so clever about the book is the way it makes fun of how books work,” says Glore. “For instance, the title page just says ‘TITLE PAGE’ in great big letters, and then in parentheses, ‘(for The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales).’ So I decided if I was going to turn this book into a play, then it should be a play that makes fun of being a play.”

When SCR decided to revive The Stinky Cheese Man during its 50th season, Glore immediately turned to director Jessica Kubzansky, who directed SCR’s TYA production of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing in 2008, to helm the project. Kubzansky’s collaborative and imaginative directing style makes her the perfect fit for the piece, not to mention her love of what she calls the play’s “torqued, lost-in-the-funhouse sense of playfulness.”

Cinderella Costume rendering by Ann Closs-Farley
Kubzansky assembled a first-rate ensemble of seven actors to play The Stinky Cheese Man’s approximately 30 characters: Larry Bates, who appeared in the original 2005 production of The Stinky Cheese Man, as well as Death of a Salesman earlier this season; Brad Culver, who makes his SCR debut; Tracey A. Leigh, SCR’s Death of a Salesman; Matt McGrath, SCR’s Putting it Together and Broadway’s Cabaret; Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, who appeared in John Glore’s adaptation of The Night Fairy last season; Amanda Pajer, who voices two popular shows at the Griffith Observatory; and Erika Schindele, SCR’s A Christmas Carol and Jane of the Jungle. Learn more about the cast of The Stinky Cheese Man.

The talented design team includes Susan Gratch (sets), Ann Closs-Farley (costumes), Jaymi Smith and Jeremy Pivnick (lights) and Vincent Olivieri (sound design/composer). Tim Horrigan is The Stinky Cheese Man’s musical director (the play is full of surprising songs that equal the stories in their silliness). These designers have an extra special challenge on their hands because The Stinky Cheese Man is much beloved for its quirky look. But the crafty team is certainly up to the challenge, and their work not only captures the book’s essence but builds upon it in clever ways.

Learn more and buy tickets.

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