BRATTLEBORO -- The folks at New England Youth Theatre are especially bullish on non-violence these days.
On the stage Monday afternoon, Peter Gould and two dozen young actors are working with high spirits on NEYT’s latest production -- a bilingual original adaptation of "Ferdinand the Bull," written by Gould and based on Munro Leaf’s beloved children’s book about the Spanish bull who refuses to fight and just wants to sit quietly and smell the flowers.
"Ferdinand the Bull" opens Friday at NEYT, 100 Flat St., and runs through Feb. 23.
Like its main character, the story of how the play came to be produced is a study in patient but firm determination to hold true one’s dreams to smell the flowers.
Deciding "Ferdinand" would be a good story to adapt, Gould set out to contact Munro Leaf’s estate through the publisher to obtain permission. For months, no word came, and Gould was afraid the project would have to be scrapped.
"Then I got this wonderful e-mail from (Munro Leaf’s son) Andy. He said ‘Munro would have loved this,’" recalled Gould.
Although loved for its sweetness and innocence, "Ferdinand the Bull " has a more complicated and controversial history. Its themes of non-conformity in the name of non-violence did not sit well, especially in context of its times. Published in 1936, it came at a time when the Spanish Civil War was being fought and when fears were stirring that Europe was once again about to be plunged into war. "Ferdinand" was branded by various groups as fascist or communist propaganda. Its pacifism did not sit well with militarists. Hitler ordered the book burned.
But "Ferdinand’s" message appealed to better angels, including generations of children. Within two years of publication, Ferdinand had become a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, an Academy Award-winning Disney cartoon film, and the book which bumped "Gone with the Wind" off the top of best-seller lists.
Why has it endured?
"It’s the non-violence," said Gould. "It’s not only that he won’t fight. It’s that he prefers to sit by himself and smell the flowers. ... He wants to be true to his nature. I think that’s probably why the story has such staying power."
In the NEYT production, Gould and his Junior Company actors bring Ferdinand to life, without shying away from the harder truths and rough historical lessons.
The play opens in the classroom of a modern-day progressive school, where teachers are carefully introducing the students to brutal realities of Munro Leaf’s time -- the brutality of the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Hitler, the consequences of repression, the price paid for cleaving to pacifism. The lesson segues to a report on Spain ... and the story of Ferdinand begins.
The lessons, for actors and audience, don’t end there. The play is divided into two parts -- the second being a complete run-through of what audiences just heard -- but in Spanish.
A long-time Spanish teacher, Gould felt "Ferdinand" presented a good opportunity for bilingual theater.
"There is a growing prejudice in the U.S. against learning foreign languages. We’re teaching our actors to be completely comfortable in another language," said Gould, who said his young charges have tackled that challenge "with aplomb."
NEYT’s version is a rollicking, high-energy, adaptation with singing and dancing.
"Ferdinand the Bull" will be presented on Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 7 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., Friday, Feb. 22, at 4 and 7 p.m., and Saturday, Feb. 23, at 2 and 7 p.m. Tickets are $8 for students, $10 for seniors, and $12 for adults.
Tickets may be purchased at www.neyt.org, or at the box office in person, or by phone 802-246-6398, from noon to 5 p.m., on Wednesdays.