New Turlock theater company leaps into life with ‘Bunnicula’

Chester the cat (Angeleigha Arnold) doesn’t know what to make of the Monroe family’s new pet, Bunnicula.
Chester the cat (Angeleigha Arnold) doesn’t know what to make of the Monroe family’s new pet, Bunnicula. Bicek Photography

A sneaky rabbit with an irresistible craving for vegetables? Sounds like a Beatrix Potter tale we all know and love. But this is no anthropomorphic animal wearing a cute jacket and shoes. It’s a fanged little fellow named Bunnicula, and his tale will be told this weekend and next at the Carnegie Arts Center in Turlock.

“Bunnicula,” adapted for the stage by Jon Klein from the beloved 1979 book by Deborah and James Howe, is the first production by the recently formed nonprofit LightBox Theatre Company. That the story of a mysterious bunny brought home by a family on Halloween is being staged this month is just good fortune.

LightBox co-founders Stefani Tsai and Eric Broadwater, both faculty members in the theater program at California State University, Stanislaus, had been talking for a couple of years about creating a professional company geared toward young audiences, Tsai said Wednesday.

She had in mind “Bunnicula” – one of her favorite books as a child – as the first production.

“I’d already been looking at the script,” she said, adding that she’d been reading the book and its sequels to her stepson at night.

One of LightBox Theatre Company’s goals is to produce adaptations of American literature for children and to develop new works that reflect the history, stories and culture of our diverse community.

Plans to form LightBox began to gel in the spring after Tsai finished her Ph.D. program.

“We talked with Lisa (McDermott) at the Carnegie and she said she could give us dates in October,” Tsai said. Perfect timing for the Dracula-inspired story of an animal suspected of draining veggies of their juices.

“It’s a great story with a whole lot of action and has some funny, quirky characters children will love,” she said.

The seven-member cast includes two high school students, three Stanislaus State theater students and two members of the community. One of the cast members is the puppeteer who will control Bunnicula.

Tsai said she’s feeling confident as opening night nears because the cast and crew have put a lot of energy and work into the production.

“They’ve really enjoyed the humor in this play and the characters,” she said.

According to Scholastic, the book “Bunnicula” won more than 10 Children’s Choice awards, including the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award and the Nene Award.

A couple of cast members weren’t familiar with the story, so they read the book and brought some ideas to the play, Tsai said.

Nothing will change the playwright’s script – “I think it’s important to preserve the integrity of the work” – but the cast input influenced some of her directing choices, said Tsai, who is artistic and managing director of LightBox.

Broadwater, LightBox’s production manager, did the set design, including painting the backdrops; LightBox founding member Walter Astorga did the costuming; and Carol Howard was the prop designer.

“Bunnicula” fits well into LightBox’s plans to present stage adaptations of children’s books. When kids read a book at home or in school and then have an opportunity to see it brought to life, “it’s just a lovely way to do theater,” Tsai said.

In founding LightBox, her and Broadwater’s two-pronged goal was to give Turlock a professional-quality theater company and stage productions for youth.

“When you teach children to come to plays and you present theater that engages them, they will become theatergoers as adults,” Tsai said. “You’re encouraging a lifelong activity.”

LightBox Theatre Company already has plans for a spring production of “The Reluctant Dragon,” by Kenneth Grahame, adapted for the stage by Ed Monk.

Keeping with that goal, the Carnegie Arts Center and LightBox are offering field trips to the arts center on Tuesday and Oct. 8, for all third- through fifth-graders at Wakefield Elementary School. A grant from the Kiwanis Club of Greater Turlock will provide a copy of the original “Bunnicula” book for each student to take home.

The honesty of a young audience will let LightBox know if it’s succeeding, Tsai said.

Children’s theater is an exciting, engaging type of production, “and the audience will love it if you do your job well,” she said. “That makes us have to be accountable.”

McDermott, director of Carnegie Arts Center, said in a news release, “The Carnegie is really excited about working with LightBox Theatre. It increases our ability to provide arts education for kids in our community. We’ve been very successful with our field trips bringing students to see gallery exhibitions; now we have the chance to add high-quality theater to what we can offer to local schools.”

Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327


WHERE: The Loft Theater at the Carnegie Arts Center, 250 N. Broadway, Turlock

WHEN: Friday and Oct. 9 at 7 p.m.; Saturday and Oct. 10 at 2 and 7 p.m.; Sunday and Oct. 11 at 2 p.m.

TICKETS: $12 general, $10 Carnegie Arts Center members, $8 children and students with valid ID. Note: Tickets for the matinee performance Oct. 3 will be available by donation at the box office beginning at 12:30 p.m. that day. A donation in any amount will be accepted per ticket for that performance only.

ONLINE: http://lightboxforyouth.org, www.carnegieartsturlock.org