Welcome to the jungal: MD production “Jungalbook”

Maeve Goldman, Staff Writer

“My favorite moment was the final bow,” Claire Lee (8) said. “Looking at everyone, seeing everyone on stage together, and taking in the fact that we made this amazing show.” Last Thursday and Saturday the Blackbox theater came to life with the sounds of the jungle, as wolves howled, birds chirped, and leaves rustled in the Middle Division’s (MD) spring musical, The Jungalbook. 

Theater teacher Haila VanHentenryck selected the Jungalbook, which is adapted by Edward Mast from a book of theater for young audiences, she said. The play differs from the many adaptations of the 1894 Rudyard Kipling story that are on Netflix and Disney live, she said. “It takes away the disneyfication of the play and gets closer to the original Jungalbook,” VanHentenryck said. “Unlike the cute cuddly animals in Disney, our animals are more savage and harsh just like the laws of the jungle.” 

Before formal rehearsals began, the cast took time to fully encapsulate their characters, VanHentenryck said. Although the students are playing humans in a playground as opposed to animals in a jungle, they are animalistic kids, she said. “Each student had a specific animal that flavored their performance,” she said. Students did this by viewing videos of animal movements and noises, which became the basis of the physical and vocal elements that they chose to incorporate into their performance, VanHentenryck said.  

Ella Hecht (8) played a hypnotizing snake named Kaa, she said. To get into character, Hecht practiced dance movements which she improvised on stage, she said. She gravitated towards kicks, splits, and backbends to showcase the slithering and flexibility of Pythons, Hecht said. “I focused on executing and accentuating my moves.” 

For three months the cast rehearsed on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and sometimes on Saturdays, Lee, who played Mowgli, said. Rehearsals began with a check in, then an ice breaking question such as which character from the play they would be, a physical and vocal warmup, and finally the cast started blocking and running scenes, Lee said.  

Rehearsals ended with team bonding, Loewy Miller (8) said. “We would practice reinforcing one cast member each to give them recognition and appreciation,” he said. “It really helped build a community.” 

The play came together on stage, Lee said. “Once you start the show you’re in it and it runs like a machine where everything just clicks,” she said.

Lee’s favorite scene to perform was the beat “Time Passes”, she said. Lee got to interact with the set, climbing around the industrial jungle, scaling the slide, and swinging on the broken swing set, she said. “Mowgli never stops moving,” Lee said. “It shows how much Mowgli trusted the space and his home and helped the development where Mowgli doesn’t know if he belongs here and if he is actually safe and secure.” 

Miller had the most fun experimenting with his emotional range in the scene where his character, Sherakhan Khan the tiger kills Akela, he said. “It was really fun and interesting to play around with the emotions of being defeated,” he said. Miller practiced smiling excessively, changing his volume, and making exaggerated facial expressions to truly convey the villainous spirit of his character, he said. 

On the days of the show, students struggled to balance the fun of the performance and not breaking character, Hecht said.  For example, in one scene Hecht, as Kai the snake, attempted to hypnotize one of her friends, she said. “To stay calm I needed to take deep breaths and not look directly at him or I would laugh,” she said. “We found ways to stay middle schoolers and keep the process light hearted while still working.”

Each of the three performances was different from the last due to the different audiences, Hecht said. “It was interesting to see different things each audience picked up on, there was a different vibe with each show,” she said. On Thursday, the cast performed for the MD who attempted to be respectful, not laughing at the jokes or showing much emotion, Hecht said. “During the Saturday performances, the parents were more excited.”  

VanHentenryck loved watching parents’ reactions to the performances, she said. Another cast member’s mother exclaimed how realistic the actors were. “It’s fun for me to see all the parents realize what committed, amazing, performances their children are doing,” she said.

Overall the cast formed a lasting connection, Lee said. “We have lots of inside jokes,” she said. “You make a lot of friends in theater because you are all in a vulnerable situation and doing weird things but you aren’t embarrassed because everyone is in it together singing, acting, and playing games.”

In the end, VanHentenryck hopes middle schoolers will connect their experience as adolescents to the play, she said. “It’s a story of Mowgli, a boy raised by a wolf pack coming of age and growing up and realizing he’s not actually a wolf,” she said. “It’s about the finding of identity,” VanHentenryck said. “Middle school is the same as Mowgli’s journey, you find where you fit in, where you want to fit in, and where you don’t want to fit in.”