The monsters in Boise Contemporary Theater's A Nighttime Survival Guide are disgusting, however lovingly rendered. The guts of this production, however, aren't creature horror or loving set design, but a reminder that within small children, big hearts beat.
The story follows 11-year-old pen pals Aki from Japan and Verne from Idaho (Carie Kawa and Dwayne Blackaller, respectively) as Verne fills his survival guide with tips for defeating the monsters under his bed from Aki, who derives the strength to confront her own problems from her growing friendship with Verne.
Survival Guide takes children seriously. The demons and beasts pulled from Japanese mythology stalking Verne are, surely, figments of his imagination, but Blackaller communicates the boy's terror and courage with ebullience. Kids aren't tabula rasa, and Verne's imagination is a training ground for what will one day become adult virtues.
The show stealer, however, is Aki, whose feelings and insight seem caught up in spiderwebs of uncertainty. Writers and directors Blackaller and Matthew Cameron Clark gave Aki a long, slow arc and the stage, divided between the two characters, seems darker and more spare on Aki's side. Watching her fold her bed cot into a corner of the room signals impermanence, insecurity and the doubt howling in her soul—and just outside her window.
Puppet grotesqueries come courtesy of Resident Scenic and Puppet Designer Michael Baltzell, who just this year won a Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts—and they are gorgeous. Audience reactions to the filth demon dwelling in Verne's bathroom were a mixture of delight and disgust. Its long, pink tongue made people gag with glee.
But though puppets were a fantastical break from the Verne/Aki drama, tonally they were out of place, and could be seen as either a way to establish Verne's vivid imagination or distract from it. Children come to terms with their imaginations slowly, and rarely do they get to heroically wage decisive battles against the monsters in their heads, let alone over grainy Skype sessions with friends half a world away.
The play takes place within a snowglobe of rural isolation, waning daylight and kids' bedrooms. Even inside their bubbles, though, Aki and Verne are on the precipice of a long tumble toward adulthood, and the gravity of their respective moments is realized and relayed to audiences.
This is BCT's second go at Survival Guide (the first was February 2013). It's also the first time BCT has staged a revival. Neither the content nor the technical aspects have been updated or changed significantly, which raises the question of why this play was returned to the BCT stage—but it's a question audiences must answer for themselves. What the revival does offer, however, is a second chance to see the constructed lines between youth and adulthood blurred in a dazzling moral tale for, and about, kids.