I HAVE a great fondness for Edward Bear, and a special reserve pot of honeyed appreciation for any mention of him that comes my way. Although Winnie is one of the most lovable and engaging bears I've ever known, most other people leave him behind when they slough off childhood, and outright reminders of him grow few and far between.
He has, though, had more than his fair share of abuse by unscrupulous promoters in recent years. Being the unassuming (and somewhat thickheaded) bear that he is, he has not protested when snatched up by entrepreneurs to be their moneymaking lure. Sears salesmen palm off bogus Poohs on cups, cereal bowls and children's clothes. In his Pooh Perplex, Frederick C. Crewes uses Winnie as a straw bear to be analyzed in every way imaginable in a parody of literary criticism. Walt Disney latched onto the Pooh image in an hour-long cartoon, but substituted Hollywood caricatures for Shepard's illustrations of Pooh and his friends. Disney even went so far as to introduce a new animal hero into the Hundred Acre Wood--an absurd looking gopher who does nothing but stand out as a foreigner.
Thus, it was quite a fair shake, and welcome slake to my bear thirst, to see the Harvard Yard Players' production of "Winnie-the-Pooh." Lehman Hall turned into a huge livingroom, and Pooh and friends entered when Milne began telling a story for Christopher Robin. The atmosphere was warm and informal, because there was no stage to separate the actors from the first ring of children seated on the floor. This close range prompted almost spontaneous audience participation. The actors introduced themselves in individual conversations with the children, shook hands, danced and even had two of the children help Rabbit and Christopher Robin free Pooh from Rabbit's front door where he was stuck. The two were abashed and hesitating at first, but when they became accustomed to the spotlights' glare, and their adrenalin started racing, they pulled with all their might. I just wish there had been more audience participation, because it delighted the children and made them feel a part of the play, certainly one of the important aspects of children's theater.
Although I longed for the genuine Edward Bear to step forward and come alive from Shepard's drawings, Lisa Conley, who played Winnie, did not let me be too disappointed. Her facial expressions were charmingly Poohish to a great degree, and her snores were unmistakably from the bear himself. Eeyore, the old grey donkey, played by Divinna Snyder, was also portrayed convincingly. She spoke her lines with the exact tone of lovable melancholy that Milne gave to the original Eeyore.
THE PACE of the acting was very lively and energetic, even confusing and chaotic at times. Judging by the children's response, as they craned their necks to see above the performers' knees, the action held their attention, keeping the excitement level high. But Milne's Pooh seemed rather out of place among all this activity. Although this pace was for the children's benefit, Edward Bear is actually a more slow-moving, peaceful character, with plenty of time for ambling in the forest to offset his adventures and mishaps.
Director Josh Rubins' songs were a significant addition to Milne's prose. They were well sung and used effectively to split scenes, but moralized too explicitly. For instance, "seek and you shall find," when Eeyore lost his tail, "it's the thought that counts," when Pooh and Piglet gave Eeyore his birthday presents in less-than-perfect condition, and in general equating Pooh's love of honey outright with human vices. This contrasts sharply with Milne, for an important part of Pooh's charm is his subtlety; morals are implicit in Milne's stories. If you want a lesson, Pooh's "little brain" and great fondness for honey will provide them--left, right, and center of stomach. But if you are not in the mood for moralizing, his bumblings can be put down to the shortcomings of a stout bear. Rubins' songs, no matter how enjoyable to listen to, summed matters up too succinctly, leaving the children no choice but to read morals in.
The songs were set to jazz, and being a Milne traditionalist, I didn't particularly like this updating of Pooh's world. The Hundred Acre Wood is an isolated timeless spot that shouldn't be influenced by the kind of modern pop music that Charlie Brown and his Peanuts setting fit in with. To preserve Pooh's nature, his songs should be just his usual off-key ramblings, subtle, pleasant; not orchestrated jazz.
All in all, Rubins' song and dance version of Winnie-the-Pooh was enjoyable, but the Adams House black tie reading last Christmas came closer to Pooh perfection in its inclination toward the absurdly formal.