Six years after his stage debut, a particularly gluttonous Winnie the Pooh is making his triumphant(ish) return.
James Shoberg's darkly comic Winnie the Pooh and the Seven Deadly Sins was first produced by his company, The Rage of the Stage Players, in 2013. The group has produced similarly adventurous programming since then — notably the ambitious adaptation of the vampire classic Fright Night last year — but the overwhelming success of Pooh was always fresh in the minds of its fans and the company. So Shoberg decided to bring it back this summer, running July 12-27 at McKeesport Little Theater.
Shoberg made a few tweaks to the script to update it for the 2019 version, but the bones of the plot are the same: a teenage Christopher Robin is struggling to come to terms with being gay in his strict Catholic school environment. A series of events early on send Robin back home to Hundred Acre Wood, where he finds his old friends have grown up. Pooh has lost a leg to diabetes. Tigger is a frat dude – Tau Iota Gamma – whose good-natured, mischievous personality has evolved into a cat-calling, horny creep. Owl is a pretentious alcoholic. Robin, too, is not the plucky cherub of A.A. Milne's books, nor the more modern pity-party his plotline might suggest.
"[Robin] is very realistic," says Shoberg. "He's a bit of an asshole, a smartass 16-year-old. He's not a poor little victim gay kid that the world is picking on."
Like the title says, Shoberg's Hundred Acre Wood crew embodies the seven deadly sins. Some are easy to guess (Pooh's gluttony, Eeyore's sloth), but part of the fun here is the way Shoberg confirms and subverts ideas we have about these familiar characters. The simple costumes do a good job of nodding to the character traits in neat little flourishes. Like, of course, Eeyore wears a droopy flannel.
A title as spicy as Winnie the Pooh and the Seven Deadly Sins tends to provoke interest, and on a more cynical wavelength, make you wonder if the production might veer into shock value for the sake of itself — especially given The Rage of the Stage's reputation for the profane, and the obvious friction created between beloved children's characters and adult material. Shoberg is well aware of this. But for him, it's not about shocking or offending, but expressing and creating the sort of stories he'd like to see in the world: gallows humor with heart.
"Despite its darkly comedic approach to sensitive subject matter, we at The Rage feel this is a very important production that connects with many of those who feel misunderstood regarding their sexuality," Shoberg says. "We want to get the word out, and fill seats with audiences who will appreciate it, not simply for its edgy humor, but also the positive message it ultimately conveys."