One day, a lion came to the library. He walked right past the circulation desk and up into the stacks.
Mr. McBee ran down the hall to the head librarian’s office. “Miss Merriweather!” he called.
“No running,” said Miss Merriweather, without looking up.
“But there’s a lion!” said Mr. McBee. “In the library!”
“Is he breaking any rules?” asked Miss Merriweather. She was very particular about rule breaking.
“Well, no,” said Mr. McBee. “Not really.”
“Then leave him be.”
Thus begins Michelle Knudsen’s “Library Lion” (2006), and it’s enough to read those few sentences (and look at the accompanying illustrations by Kevin Hawkes – www.youtube.com/watch?v=u0vrNDby9LY) to see what makes this one of the loveliest and most searching children’s books to have appeared in recent years. With quiet restraint and gentleness – as obligated, no doubt, by the book’s setting – “Library Lion” addresses some of the biggest and most resonant questions: loneliness, regret, choosing between good and bad.
It’s no easy task to transpose a wonderful book to the theater stage. On the one hand, it’s impossible and undesirable to cling by force to the book’s framework. At the same time, if the playwright and the director stray too far from the framework, they are liable to lose the book’s soul. That, at any rate, was my feeling in the first scenes of the play, and it became brutally sharp with the first appearance of Miss Merriweather (Miss Dafni in the Hebrew version) as she wiggled her way across the stage on high heels. Miss Merriweather wearing high heels? The head librarian, the driving force of the story, is the embodiment of restraint and introversion.
The radical alteration of Miss Merriweather’s character reflects the dual choice of the playwright, Eli Bijaoui, and the director, Roni Finkovitz. To begin with, it is a musical. This means that the actors sing in the library, which would seem to contradict the hushed nature of the institution. Second, if the emotional focuses of the book are Miss Merriweather, Mr. McBee (Mr. Nakdi) and what they discover about themselves following the encounter with the lion, the center of the play is the children and the driving force is their bursting energy. Especially that of the girl (Yael), who complains at the start that the library is a really boring place, but changes her mind after the lion episode.
The choices made by the director and the playwright do have the effect of weakening the book’s gentle poetry and imbue the play with a higher volume and a faster pace. At first, as I noted, this could upset the book’s devotees, but even before the middle of the play, the reservations begin to fade, and not only because of the excellent actors and fine songs. There are two other important reasons. The first is the lion himself – his physical presence on the stage. Part of the story’s power lies in the illustrated lion’s soft, quiet presence and in the pleasure the reader derives when imagining how the children in the story feel as they cuddle up to him.
In the stage version, the lion has a different presence, more flexible than soft, but no less impressive for that. The way in which the lion costume has been designed, and the marvelous work of the actor inside it, create a riveting combination of shyness coupled with supernatural physical ability. It’s a joy to see.
Another reason that this is a very successful play, despite the loss of the poetic element, is related to the book’s central theme. Mr. McBee, who was jealous of the lion and kicked him out of the library because he roared, understands that he made a mistake by sticking to the formal rules. A good deed, the book tells us, sometimes entails breaking the rules. That same lesson can be applied to the work of the play’s creators and to the “work” of the viewers – the impression they form. So, if the rule is to stick closely to the book, we can and should respect the fact that the director and the playwright have allowed themselves to depart from it. But please, before the next performance, get Miss Merriweather off those high heels.
Mediatheque, 6 Golda Meir Blvd., Holon, 03-502-1555. Sunday, 17.00; Monday 11.00, 12.00.
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