The Lives of Others

Neil Gaiman's Fantasy Novella 'Coraline' Comes to the Stage at SF Playhouse, With Songs by Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields

Jessica Palopoli, SF Playhouse/Courtesy

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Sometimes, it's better to accept the way things are in adolescence, however confusing or dull, than to battle the crazed doppelganger of your mother or rescue souls, all before bedtime. Such is the life of Coraline Jones.

Originally a 2002 novella written by Neil Gaiman, "Coraline" has been transfigured into several art forms in the last few years: as a graphic novel in 2008, a stop-motion animation film by Henry Selick in 2009 and finally an Off-Broadway musical premiering that same year. Scored by Magnetic Fields mastermind Stephin Merritt and written by celebrated playwright David Greenspan, "Coraline" is now making its West Coast debut at the SF Playhouse. This theater, an unpretentious space, is the perfect host for a play as creative as "Coraline." And despite the modest space, the company keeps its imagination outside the box.

Coraline (Maya Donato, one of two actresses who play her) is a young girl, precocious and brave, whose mind is much bigger than that of her mom and dad (Stacy Ross and Jackson Davis). Her parents, literally tethered to their Mac Books onstage, haven't the time to even look up from their skull-numbing screens to notice her. She is on vacation from school and isn't allowed to go outside - so what child wouldn't hatch a scheme under such circumstances? Coraline finds a way to pass through the impermeable brick wall that separates her family's apartment from the one next door.

On the other side is the "Other World," filled with menacing characters that could put this play on the iffy side for kids. Coraline encounters her "Other Mother" and "Other Father" (also played by Ross and Davis) who entice the girl with lots of parental attention, toys and pancakes. But she soon learns that her Other parents are impostors - and soul-suckers, too. The Other Mother offers Coraline an eternity of happiness if she can sew buttons in place of Coraline's eyes. Thus, Coraline, armed with nothing but her wits and a Cat for a conscience (Brian Yates Sharber) - a flightier Cheshire - sets out to free herself and her parents from what lies behind those Other bricks in the wall.

Onstage, the "Other World" is an expressionist, kitschy nightmare of sorts, populated with creepy puppets by Chris White. They look like the drawings of children from a psych ward but set in 3-D and pastels. The Other Mother's spider-like fingers, with the long nails and red polish, terrorize Coraline. White astutely merges actor and prop, bringing the body closer to the puppet. For one, PVC pipes, fitted to an actor's body, embody the Other Mother's hand.

The music, with banjos and toy pianos, is chock-full of the Merritt-esque flourishes his fans will know well: syncopation, dissonance, but always a sense of whimsy and wonderment. His score fits snugly between the Magnetic Fields albums he's churned out in the past few years (Distortion in 2008 and Realism in 2000). It's a raw, off-the-cuff kind of performance that complements Merritt's otherwise tight songwriting.

As a musical, though, "Coraline" is somewhat perplexing: Sometimes, the actors don't quite match up vocally, such as in the anthem of the toys in the Other World. The result is something like a harmony slipping on a banana peel and sliding clumsily onto a melody. These missed cues and skipped beats are few and far between, but they're there, sometimes in a split-second, and it's hard to say whether or not these slip-ups are intentional since Merritt's haphazard score demands spontaneity.

At 12 years old, the vocally confident (but not too polished) Maya Donato is a fine young actress, neither a princess nor a tomboy; physically, and in her mannerisms, she's perfect to play Coraline. Her un-theatrical, natural performance defies the wunderkind of Gaiman's novella and Selick's film. With choices like these, director Bill English makes "Coraline" seem more believable, but believability is not one of the criteria for a fantasy musical. Still, it's a winsome stage production for adults and children. It would also work well as the first chapter in a pathologically twisted Bildungsroman.

Enjoy pancakes from your button-eyed Other Mother with Ryan at [email protected]

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