The appearance of Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith's The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales in 1992 was like a swift kick in the Squirrel Nutkin of children's literature. At the time, books for very young children tended toward metaphorical tales of tolerance, understanding and family, always family, especially driving home the point that they come in all shapes and sizes and many times they hibernate for the winter. It wore on kids and adults alike. (Dr. Seuss? Sure. But you read too much Seuss to a kid and things happen. Bad things. Ralph Reed was read a lot of Seuss.)
And along came Stinky Cheese Man. Imagine it as the Ramones' "Beat on the Brat" showing up in a world of Emerson, Lake and Palmer-written tales about wide-eyed marsupials living with a well-meaning lizard family while learning there's nothing wrong with folks who look different than us, even if those folks lick their eyeballs for hydration. Stinky was like that, managing to pull off that wheeze Looney Tunes had managed decades before, cracking kids up with pratfalls while keeping adults entertained with double-entendres, wicked sub-text and knowing glances.
John Glore, who adapted The Stinky Cheese Manfor the theater a decade ago, remembers reading the book to his daughter and being reminded of those Fractured Fairy Tales cartoons that were fast, funny and, inexplicably, populated with mugs from Brooklyn who'd wandered into Bavarian folk tales. Stinky Cheese was fun for fun's sake; there was no desire to educate or motivate. It spoke to kids as kids speak to each other, with lots of smells and non sequiturs.
"There was something sort of culturally subversive about it," Glore said. "I loved it. It seemed a natural for the theater."
In fact, Glore's original adaptation—he's since updated it several times—took him just three days. Perhaps one of the reasons he took to the book was that it had done what he and so many others have been trying to do for the theater: make it new, fresh, make it an alternative for younger people who don't have theater on their entertainment radar. He seems to have succeeded, considering that the musical has been consistently performed since it was written, though Glore will actually see a full production for the first time when South Coast Repertory, where Glore serves as associate artistic director, mounts the play June 9 on the Julianne Argyros stage.
"I'm looking forward to it," he said. "It's a sort of a send-up of theater. You know, the same way the book makes fun of children's books, we make fun of theater. The show is the show. It's very fast-paced, very frenetic. Very popular with third-, fourth- and fifth-graders."
But, as we all know, the people most frequently buying tickets to plays nowadays were in the third, fourth and fifth grade before cheese was invented . . . kidding! Still, the fact remains that American theater's audience is graying and Glore believes a play like Stinky Cheese could do its little part to convince kids that the theater can be a place for a good time, that it can be just as fast-paced and funny as a TV show or video game.
"I think it's crucial we convince kids of it," he said. Of course, theater people have been saying that for years and their audiences continue to age. Perhaps the only way to break into a new audience is to break the old molds, because, you know, you can't say molds without saying old. Look it up.
Breaking the old mold isn't always easy, but Glore's career has worked hard at it. Not only has he had several of his own plays produced, but these days he's in charge of SCR's Pacific Playwrights Festival, which seeks new voices. He also attacks a never-dwindling mound of new plays that show up on his desk, and he's the guy who adapted Aristophanes' The Birds with performance group Culture Clash—whom he also worked with on Chavez Ravineand the upcoming Water and Power.And, did we mention, he wrote a musical about something called a Stinky Cheese Man?
"I think it's crucial that we continue to reach out," he said, "But it's not always easy. [SCR] has put on people like [playwright] Noah Haidle, and these are plays where guys are masturbating onstage. Well, for some people, something like that creates a lot of discomfort and they tell us about it. On the other hand, we'll have younger people in the audience come and tell us they love it."
(Note to parents: Noah Haidle had nothing to do with the production of Stinky Cheese Man.)
Glore says he's eager to see the reaction to Stinky, though he has a good idea of what it'll be.
"You know, I've watched the rehearsals and you see the unadulterated pleasure the actors take in performing it," he said. "It's the pleasure of just being silly, of just letting go. We were concerned whether we could get good actors to play these parts, but we've found they love performing in them. It's the opportunity to just be silly. You've got to be silly."
THE STINKY CHEESE MAN IS ON THE JULIANNE ARGYROS STAGE AT SOUTH COAST REPERTORY THEATER, 655 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 708-5555; WWW.SCR.ORG. FRI., 7 P.M.; SAT., 11 A.M., 2 & 4:30 P.M.; SUN., 2 & 4:30 P.M. THROUGH JUNE 25. $17-$25.
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