YES, OREGON CHILDREN'S THEATRE'S latest offering does begin with "Once upon a time," but The Storm in the Barn is no cutesy princess tale, and the bleak Kansas Dust Bowl setting is no "far, far away." And that's exactly the draw.
"Once upon a time, the world was turning to dust," repeats downtrodden Jack (nimbly played by Drammy-winning Jack Clevenger). Storm's Depression-era setting provides a context of American history relevant to current concerns, plus a twist of fantasy (a monster made of rainstorms) and a coming-of-age tale. Jack struggles to overcome bullies and prove his worth to his Pa (an engrossing Damon Kupper), whose mind is on bigger hardships—which, by the way, are not glossed over. The inclusion of some harsh realities is a show of respect for kids' capacity to deal, as well as a wise choice for adult viewers.
Many smart choices were made in this production, particularly around source material and collaborators. Just as the Working Theatre Collective and Action/Adventure Theatre mined Springsteen and Steinbeck for their recent winner Something Epic/Everyday, OCT smartly commissioned local folk-bluegrass supergroup Black Prairie (featuring three-fifths of the Decemberists) to score the show, which is itself an adaptation of Matt Phelan's award-winning graphic novel.
Though hardly classifiable as a musical, Storm does prominently feature music—performed onstage by the cast—that takes hold of you right from the doleful, silhouetted opening scene, propelling the action and heightening the mood throughout the play's compact, near-hour duration. Black Prairie proves to be a perfect choice for this project—their 2010 debut album, Feast of the Hunters' Moon, would also provide suitable ambiance while reading Phelan's Storm in the Barn—and they've just released an album of the spooky soundtrack.
In November, Phelan announced that his graphic novel has been optioned for a film to be written by David Goodman of Fringe and produced by Marti Noxon (Buffy, Mad Men). No word yet on the score, but it'd be great to see Black Prairie land that contract. Before all that excitement comes along, though, OCT's current production offers elements that a film couldn't: live music, strong theatrical design across the board (real dust!), and the chance to see Storm in the barn-like Winningstad.