Afternoon of the Elves, Y York’s new play adapted from the novel by Janet Taylor Lisle, tells a remarkable story about two girls, their parents, and the backyards which embody their vastly different lives and personal views of the world. It poses a serious question about contemporary notions and codes concerning families and social conscience. It suggests that we might look more closely at people who may be peculiar and dare to learn something from them.
Commissioned by Seattle Children’s Theatre after artistic director Linda Hartzell discovered Lisle’s Newbery Honor book on one of her regular rounds of bookstores and libraries, Afternoon of the Elves plays Sep. 23-Oct. 31 at the Charlotte Martin Theatre. The script was one of eight plays for young people selected for script development at New Visions/New Voices at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., which provides a playwright and director with actors, a team of dramaturgs and a week-long rehearsal period culminating in a reading for an invited audience of children and theatre professionals.
York’s story of friendship and the supernatural begins with an “average” fourth-grader, Hillary Lenox, who is working her way into the “in” crowd. Hillary has the requisite status: She lives in a fairly new home and has a perfectly manicured backyard complete with a brand new birdbath. She has acquired the obligatory matching clothing, although achieving the matching hairdo proves harder. Hardest of all, it turns out, is avoiding Sara Kate Connolly.
Sara Kate will never be part of the “in” crowd. She’s been held back for another try at the fifth grade, dresses oddly, eats mush from a thermos for lunch, and (rumor has it) steals things. She lives in a deteriorating Victorian house with an atrocious backyard filled with old appliances, car motors, tires and brambles. Her backyard abuts Hillary’s, but Hillary has never been past the hedge that divides them.
Have you ever seen one?
When Sara Kate chooses Hillary to confide in about the elf village she has discovered in her backyard, Hillary’s life takes an exciting but complicated turn. She is attracted to the danger, mystery and fantasy of this strange new world, but realizes she is jeopardizing her social position if she pursues Sara Kate’s friendship.
“Elves have different rules. Elves think it’s okay to steal stuff nobody is using. Or stuff from mean rich people,” Sara Kate tells Hillary. Even though she has never actually seen an elf, except out of the comer of her eye, Sara Kate knows quite a lot about them. “Don’t be scared of elves. Elves can’t hurt people. People can hurt elves is all.”
Soon there are some amazing additions to the village: An elf-sized ferris wheel made from bicycle tires; a hilltop swimming pool (or something). Even more mysterious than the elf village is Sara Kate herself. She eats wild mint leaves and strange red berries. Sometimes she is absent from school for days at a time, with no explanation. Hillary’s parents are worried. Her father wishes that the elves would build in their backyard where it is neat, clean and safe. But in spite of the opposition, Hillary and Sara Kate’s friendship grows.
The all-important backyards are captured in an expansive unit set designed by Jennifer Lupton, incorporating shades of blue, green, gray and purple for Sara Kate’s eerie two-story house and the back door and stoop of Hillary’s rosier, decorator-hued house. The two yards are full of real flowers, hedges and trees. Special lighting effects create mystery and magic in the elf village.
Afternoon of the Elves, the first of five commissioned plays in the 1993-94 SCT season, will open the new 485-seat Charlotte Martin Theatre designed specifically for children, young people and families. Designed by Mahlum & Nordfors McKinley Gordon, it sports a wide, welcoming canopy supported by 14 adventurously wrought steel animals created by Seattle artist Garth Edwards. One feature of the PONCHO theatre (SCT’s old space) too good to give up was its carpeted risers where children and parents sat together as they watched a play. The actors, especially, requested that feature be included in SCT’s new home, and they got their wish there are three cushioned carpeted tiers in the front of the house, seating approximately 160 people. The remainder of the audience is outfitted with fixed seating, tested for comfort and selected by a 12-year-old consultant.
A culturally diverse cast performs York’s haunting mystery play for young people and families. “The bushes rustle and we wonder if the spirits are really there,” says Hartzell, who also directs. “When the play is over we walk out thinking hard about the plight of children in our society.”