The mouse that wailed

“Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse” sounds like childhood anxieties amplified.

by Greg Corradini

Making a major career change can be difficult, especially when your work is viewed by thousands of people.

Darron L. West is the director and sound designer for the Children’s Theatre Company’s production of “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse,” a fantastic coming-of-age story about a young mouse. He recently made the switch from designing sound to coordinating an entire production. As the resident sound designer with Anne Bogart’s famous SITI Company in New York, West also designed the sound for CTC’s original 1999 production of “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse.” He had been hanging around directors for so long that he decided to try his hand at running the whole show.

“I had the privilege to be in the rehearsal hall with extraordinary directors,” West said. “And I think that I have just been trained (by them) over the years.”

West changed aspects of the play now that it is under his direction. “This production is radically different from the old version,” West said. “It’s like taking Kevin Kling’s script and sending it to the gym and getting it all buffed up.”

Lilly (Maggie Chestovich), our mouse heroine, makes an amusing “queen of the world.” She first appears on stage armed with squirt guns, a cowboy hat and a red cape. The band-aids that dot her body are only used “to make (her) look brave. And when (she) looks brave, (she) feels brave.” Lilly struts proudly in her red leather cowboy boots embossed with a star. Her bravado is the essence of childhood freedom and imagination.

Because Lilly is a bit eccentric (she talks backwards), it doesn’t take her long to annoy supreme poindexters Chester (Joe Leary) and Wilson (Michael Snyder). “Two peas in a pod,” they do everything in the same nerdy way. They double knot their shoes for safety, a sure sign of dweebiness, and only eat their peanut butter sandwiches in triangular pieces. But Lilly, a revolutionary hurricane in Chester and Wilson’s parched world, has come to the rescue. If only they would pay attention to her.

Attention, or lack thereof, is this mouse’s major problem. All the plot points of “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse” focus on the rodent’s struggle to accept responsibility and demonstrate patience and consideration for others.

When Lilly is not so patient bad things happen. Her new baby brother Julius tends to take up all of her parents’ time. The ill-tempered Lilly sings Julius a song about his “beady eyes, his slimy wet nose” and dubs him “Julius, germ of the world.”

Her parents (Aimee Trumbore and Paul de Cordova) don’t think much of this behavior, of course. In a shocking moment, the children of the audience find themselves gripped by the realistic onstage drama when Lilly gets sent to the uncooperative chair. Much like a timeout, a stint in the uncooperative chair is not a particularly enjoyable activity.

Darron West executes this scene with his use of a monstrous black chair and sound design choices that accentuate Lilly’s desperation. A blue spotlight surrounds Lilly, and her voice, fed through a delay loop, takes on an added echo. West pays specific attention to the smallest sound design details. The solitary water drip heard in this scene symbolizes the moist cavern inside which Lilly imagines herself.

But punishment can lead to catharsis, and Lilly’s imaginings intrude on the fabric of the real world. In the first of many surreal moments, Lilly imagines summoning lighting and turning her parents into puppets. This scene, played out to the music of Mussorgsky’s “A Night on Bald Mountain,” borders on the grotesque and represents the beefiness that West added to the production.

The “authentic plastic” purse that Lilly’s grandmother has bought her lends the title of the production. She loves to hear her quarters jingle and uses it as another pocket. But the most amazing attribute of the glittering purse is its ability to play various kinds of music when it is opened – everything from Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony” to James Brown.

West’s sound design, from the bizarre to the sublime, calls our attention to a greater design: bringing people back to the theater.

“I work at a lot of regional theater,” West said. “Constantly, you hear, ‘Our audiences are going away, our old patrons are moving on and we need to get young people interested in the audience. (In 1999) I was standing in the (Children’s Theatre Company) house filled with kids and I was thinking, ‘This is our audience.’ “