For a play about monsters, A Nighttime Survival Guide boasts surprisingly few. The beasts that haunt the shadows of Boise Contemporary Theater's latest world premiere original production are mostly imagined--fears conjured up in the minds of two 11-year-old children.
Aki (Carie Kawa) and Verne (Dwayne Blackaller) are precocious pen pals who live thousands of miles apart--Aki in the small village of Akaigawa, Japan, and Verne in snow-blanketed Arco, Idaho. But despite the distance, the two share a number of similarities:
"We both live by old dead volcanoes, we're both 11 and we're both half-American," Verne enthuses.
But the main thing that unites the two characters is the fear of being abandoned by their fathers, whose jobs have placed them at the mercy of Mother Nature. Whether talking in hushed tones over the phone or Skype-ing online, Verne and Aki help each other tackle their inner fears by assembling a Nighttime Survival Guide, a notebook full of accumulated wisdom on how to conquer the darkness and defeat Japanese folklore creatures called Yokai.
These monster puppets, dreamed up by the delightfully warped mind of Boise artist Bill Carman, are the highlight of the production. Whether it's a slimy green Kappa that ambles out of a nearby creek and totters on its webbed feet under a giant head full of water, a lumbering red Akaname with an unraveling tongue that sponges up filth in dirty bathrooms, or a spider-like wristwatch that scuttles creepily about Verne's bedroom, the creatures all provide lessons about growing up.
But aside from the well-constructed monster puppets, the play suffers from a few aesthetic hiccups. Scenic designer Michael Baltzell's sparse, wood-hued set, which boasts an arching bridge connecting the children's bedrooms, feels too austere for the magical subject matter. Costume designer Star Moxley's duds also feel out of place in this world--the kids are clad in bright, contemporary clothing, but the play's narrator and prop handlers have an antiquated, steampunk feel.
Thankfully, these small inconsistencies are only apparent in the play's first act, which drags its feet through lots of superfluous but well-acted prattling between Aki and Verne ("I noticed the letter you sent smells like vinegar, what's up with that?") By the time the second act rolls around, the pace and narrative move at a faster clip, soaring to a stirring finale that's guaranteed to get eyes welling.
A Nighttime Survival Guide is no Monsters, Inc. But it is a touching tale of the power of friendship that Boise audiences of all ages are likely to enjoy.