Through Conundrums: The Big Wide World Comes in 'Kenny's Window'
by Cecelia Goodnow
September 18, 1998
Maurice Sendak's most famous literary hero is Max of Where the Wild Things Are, who unleashes defiant fantasies when he's sent to his room. But before Max, there was Kenny. The hero of Kenny's Window, published in 1956 as Sendak's first solo picture book, is a dream-spinner who inhabits a solitary world governed by imagination. By turns sweet and ornery, Kenny is somewhat like the young Sendak, whose childhood illnesses kept him confined to his Brooklyn apartment while his brother and sister played outside.
After years of obscurity, the book takes on new life, and new dimensions, in a Seattle Children's Theatre production that kicks off a season of classics and lively, contemporary fare. Upcoming productions include Cyrano (Oct. 16Dec. 20) with Belgium's Blauw Vier, The Cricket in Times Square (Nov. 13Jan. 23), Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse (Feb. 5April 17), The Book of Ruth (Feb. 26May 2) and The King of Ireland's Son (April 30June 13).
The world premiere of Kenny's Window should be a refreshing surprise to fans of Sendak's later work. The picture book is back in print (Harper Collins, $4.95 paper) and deserves a new audience. Despite its simple, color-washed drawings, it has more originality and emotional resonance than most slick, pretty books on the market today.
Todd Jefferson Moore, whose own children always loved the book, wrote the script for a production directed by the theatre's artistic director, Linda Hartzell. The legendary Sendak, protective of his work, gave trepidatious approval to script, costumes, and set. He plans to attend the Seattle production later in its run.
The story unfolds as Kenny (played by Alex Johnston, a 13-year-old SCT Drama School student) awakes from a dream about a beautiful garden, lit half by the sun and half by the moon and stars. A four-footed rooster appears and tells Kenny he can live in that garden if he can answer seven questions.
The questions, seemingly esoteric and mystical, lead Kenny on imaginary adventures that draw him toward a larger view of life and awaken his desire for human connection.
Set designer Carey Wong drew directly from Sendak in creating a visual framework that fleshes out the book's ochre-toned drawings. The challenge was to lend visual presence to a book that's heavy on abstraction and metaphor.
"Kenny's Window is . . . I don't want to say 'odd' . . . It's a piece that is almost like a series of fortune-cookie fortunes," Wong said. "The questions are Zen-like questions. They're questions that have to do with relationships and life."
With the help of his dog, Baby, his stuffed bear and two toy soldiers, Kenny ponders such conundrums as, "What is an only goat?" "What is a very narrow escape?" and "Can you fix a broken promise?"
An "only goat," we learn, is a goat that Kenny wants for his very own. But the goat helps Kenny understand that selfish desire can cause unhappiness. "An only goat is a lonely goat," she says.
Wong suspects adults may consider the questions "mysterious and oblique," while children connect on a more straightforward level.
"I think as adults we analyze all this to death," he said, "but to children, the book has a kind of internal logic that makes sense."
The play includes moments of whimsy, a big musical number, and sophisticated puppetry choreographed by Speeltheater-Holland, creators of SCT's Stellaluna. "It's very visual, very theatrical," Hartzell said.
One of the major dramatic elements is Wong's set, which presents Kenny's simple, pre-World War II bedroom as a muted backdrop for his colorful adventures. "The set was envisioned as a magic box where things transform and metamorphose," Wong said. "This is a very innocent-looking room. It doesn't look like anything is going to happen in this room." But, magically, trees descend from the ceiling and slide from the walls as Kenny embarks on his flights of imagination. A train bursts out of a wardrobe, clothes dripping from the engine. Puppets spring up through slots along the bed, manipulated by puppeteers below who watch the onstage action through a video monitor.
Wong began this project by thinking small. He built a paint pasteboard "white" model, then created a detailed, painted model in half-inch scale. That let him and Hartzell experiment to find the right arrangement of walls and furniture to accommodate the adventures.
The most symbolic element, of course, is Kenny's window. "The window in Kenny's room keeps growing larger," Wong said, "until it finally . . . [disappears to reveal] the larger world."
"What this is really about," he said, "is the socialization of a young child. [Kenny] . . . finally starts to see that there is a life outside his room that is more compelling than the world he can create in his room. The world is waiting for him. He really has opened a new door to his life."