I have been waiting, and waiting, and waiting to see Village Theatre’s Matilda. The story of the young girl, who’s so intelligent she develops telekinetic powers, was one of my favorite movies growing up, and I had been hearing hype from Village Theatre staff for months about the training and rehearsals the child actors had undergone since June.
The behind-the-scenes of theatre production never ceases to amaze me. Director and choreographer for the production Kathryn Van Meter said several of the children had never performed professionally before, so they took the young actors — ranging in age from 8 to 12 — through lessons drilling down diction and accents, music reading, scene analysis, hip hop workshops, and cross fit training to increase their stamina.
“They’re young, and I had a hard time getting them to sit still,” Van Meter said. “So, we were exploring the play in a new kind of way. That was hard for me to figure out how to keep them engaged and keep them understanding.”
But when the curtain drew on opening night and the first musical ensemble began, one would never know that much of the young cast had been amateurs just weeks before. Their vocals and choreography was sharp and their acting was captivating — matching that of their older and much more experienced co-stars.
“I was so proud of everyone,” Van Meter said. “The preview process and tech process are pretty grueling. Each time they get a chance to run the whole show, and the company moves more and more forward. I felt like the cast and backstage crew are doing an unbelievable amount of work. I believe they all collectively jumped off the cliff and really surged forward with a heartfelt and fearless performance.”
Matilda is played by two girls with impressively honed acting chops: Las Vegas native Holly Reichert and locally-based Nava Ruthfield — each of which have their own nuances they bring to the character, Van Meter said.
Reichert performed on opening night and delivered a fierce, well-timed performance. Ruthfield was in the audience that night, donning a Matilda jacket, and cheering on her counterpart. If you get a chance, Van Meter said, it’s worth seeing the production twice, so you can experience it with each Matilda actress. Reichert and Ruthfield shine in their own small ways that’s unique and special to watch, she said.
Going into the show, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Admittedly, I’ve never read Roald Dahl’s Matilda, published in 1988, or seen the Broadway musical adaptation, so my only comparison is the 1996 film directed by Danny DeVito and starring Mara Wilson. The theatrical production rings pretty true to the film, with some little twists. The sweet librarian who introduces Matilda to broader literature plays a much larger and lovable role with Shaunyce Omar as Mrs. Phelps. When deciding what kind of accent and dialect the characters would have, Van Meter said they settled on Kenyan for Mrs. Phelps.
“I loved that it gave us an opportunity to have a character be an immigrant as one of the adult pillars in Matilda’s life,” she said. Mrs. Phelps’ role as a delightful supporter of Matilda, who’s giddy to hear Matilda’s animated tales, was such a wonderful layer to the story.
In the film, Miss Trunchbull’s beastly character as the child-hating principal of Crunchem Hall Elementary School feels much more sinister and intimidating. Though she had her moments in this version, Trunchbull (played by Basil Harris) is almost a caricature of herself, offering comedic relief that’s appreciated by adult and child audience members alike.
One of Van Meter’s favorite scenes is one of the softer moments, which takes place within Ms. Honey’s (Marissa Ryder) shed, where she and Matilda bond over a pot of tea. Though they’re separated by many years in age, the two characters had a similarly sad childhood. Ms. Honey’s mother died during childbirth and her dad disappeared when she was young, leaving her retched aunt, Miss Trunchbull, to care for her. Matilda is chastised by her self-absorbed parents for loving books. They mostly ignore her, aside from flinging insults.
“Matilda is trying to balance the craziness of the adults in her world, and then, all of a sudden, she gets to walk through an English countryside and arrive in a small shed at this intimate scene where they’re trying to develop this intimate friendship,” Van Meter said. “There are so many things in our world right now that feel so deeply chaotic and unsettling that it feels like a beautiful respite to take a minute and share a nice quiet scene.”
The show is truly beautiful, and the more I reflect on it, the more impressed I am. And what’s even better is that it’s appropriate for the whole family.
“This is a beautiful way to spend a couple hours, no matter what your age is,” Van Meter said. “There is something inside Matilda that speaks to the kid that’s inside us all — that has hopes and dreams and optimism about how to make the world a better place.”
Matilda is playing at Village Theatre in Issaquah until Dec. 30. It runs in Everett from Jan. 4-Feb. 3