People of a certain age and background take for granted that Where the Wild Things Are is a beloved, indelible relic of their childhood. But if it was beloved by me when I was a child, I’ve no memory of it.
As long as I can recall, my Sendak associations focus on the Nutshell Library. That is, the quartet of miniature stories that include, most critically, Pierre, about an insolent little boy whose indifference toward his parents gets him eaten by a hungry lion who pays a call.
Of course, I’d have to have lived an altogether hermetic life to lack all knowledge of Max, whose travels in and out of weeks to where the wild things are after his mother sends him to bed without supper. He’s insolent, too, perhaps. Or his mother simply over-reacts. Sometimes that happens. In any case, a hermit I have never been. Which means, I know of Max. I know of his wild rumpus and the gnashed teeth and terrible claws and yellow eyes he encounters after telling his mother “I’ll eat you up,” and being sent forthwith to his room.
In the last year, I’ve gotten to know Max even better, as I’ve started to read the story to my son. Isaiah has yet to be sent to bed without supper because that strikes me as downright mean. He has been, on occasion, indifferent. Sometimes downright disagreeable. So have I, I’m sure, toward my mother—in fact, just moments ago I used a regrettable tone in answering her question about a character on Louie. That’s human nature.
The charming staged adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are playing at NYU’s Skirball Center through Sunday subtly tries to elide that point. The suggestion arises that perhaps Max was not naughty toward his mother; perhaps she blamed him wrongly for various mishaps that fateful evening. But there’s no reason to dodge; kids are aggressive and Sendak’s genius is that he portrays that reality. It’s not one from which we must hide. Acknowledging misbehavior, or questionable behavior, does not make Max, or Pierre for that matter, irredeemable scoundrels. They are, simply, normal children.
In live action, Raes Calvert as Max conveys all of the innocence and mischieviousness we append to Sendak’s character. But instead of just reading about his journey to the land where Max is in charge of the wild things who love him and nobody’s in charge of him, we get to partake in it.
Isaiah loved it; he couldn’t wait to put on a mask and pretend to be a wild thing. He roared and put up his dukes in a claw-like pose when so instructed. He encouraged me to do the same. I did. He was among children selected to give Max the accouterments befitting a king. (In Isaiah’s case—he had to bestow a small yellow garbage placed upside down to serve as a throne). He took his role seriously, bowing at King Max with courtesy and grace.
Like most of the children there, he was rapt. Those who weren’t—a mere two—had to be carried out in tears, so frightened were they by the collective yells of the diminutive would-be monsters around them. Sendak encourages us to embrace our inner monster. His stories say it’s okay to be unruly, defiant, and disagreeable.
In this adaptation, Max is abetted by a narrator, played by Linda A. Carson, a thin, energetic woman with a detectable Canadian accent (the production hails from Presentation House Theater in Vancouver). As the action drew to a close, she announced, “Max was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.” He’d had enough of the behemoths. He wanted his mother. Such a basic, innocent yearning. So sweet. It brought me briefly to tears.