Puppets and people

Arden Children’s Theatre presents The BFG

4 minute read
In the show, Scammell, on stilts with a large fake head, plays a giant holding Money’s hand. She looks up at him in wonder.

In 2007, I found myself with two press tickets for the Arden’s adaptation of Ferdinand the Bull. Maybe it was because that was one of my favorite books as a kid, or maybe it’s because my plus-one that evening turned into a date, or maybe the production just was that good—but whatever the reason, I’ve been a fan of the Arden’s children’s theater productions ever since. Nearly 17 years later and expecting a child of my own with that same Ferdinand plus-one, I found myself once again at the Arden for a children’s theater production: The BFG, adapted from the Roald Dahl novel of the same name.

Giants, at scale

“BFG” stands for “Big Friendly Giant,” which immediately poses a challenge: how to depict a giant onstage to begin with. The Arden’s answer is a combination of puppetry (designed and coached by Sebastienne Mundheim and White Box Theatre) and live action: sometimes the giants are puppets, sometimes the people are puppets, but the scale always makes sense.

Matteo Scammell, playing the BFG himself, has the most work to do where scale is concerned. The titular giant is canonically a runt compared to the other giants in his family, so he has to be both smaller than the giants onstage (accomplished easily—he appears on stage in these moments as himself, with no puppets or prosthetics) but larger than the humans (accomplished, at different times, by making Scammell look bigger through the use of stilts and a papier-mâché head, or by depicting the character Sophie, played by Jessica Money, as a puppet). The puppetry in the show is top-notch and I was surprised to learn, in a post-show talkback, that this was Money’s first experience using a puppet onstage.

Transparent puppets

The framing of the Arden’s BFG, in an adaptation by David Wood, is that it’s being acted out by a child (Money) and her parents (Scammell, as well as Bi Jean Ngo), brother (Newton Buchanan), and friends (Kishia Nixon, Adaeze Nwoko, Jo Vito Ramirez, and Leah Walton) during the child’s birthday party. Though the props and costumes are awfully elaborate for that setting, they’re ultimately pretty low-tech and accessible. Is it likely an eight-year-old child would be able to make one of those papier-mâché giant heads, let alone seven of them? Probably not. Is it absolutely inconceivable? Not at all. The children in the audience were, in fact, quite taken by the puppetry, and I think that’s because they understood it on an intrinsic level. There was no reason to get distracted with thoughts of “How did they do that?” The production’s magic is laid bare on the stage, with the actors operating the puppets fully visible and the rigs required to support them entirely exposed.

The truth about Dahl

Dahl wrote some of the most beloved works of 20th-century children’s literature. He was also an unrepentant bigot whose work had to be heavily edited during his lifetime to remove antisemitic, misogynistic, and racist content to make it more marketable.

You could forgive anyone who wanted to completely wipe Dahl from the canon, especially with antisemitism on the rise and many US states dismantling reproductive rights as well as trying to legislate LGBTQ+ people out of existence. But this adaptation of Dahl’s work, staged by a diverse cast of talented actors in Philadelphia (a city where white people are the minority) for children in a school district that’s almost half Black, manages to be vibrant, loving, and joyful. If it’s making Dahl spin in his grave, all the better.

Truly for kids

As an adult who is not (yet) a parent myself, I found one of the most enjoyable parts of The BFG was taking in the reactions of the children in the audience who arrived on school buses and cheered loudly when the lights went down. That isn’t to say the play doesn’t stand on its own merits, especially if, like me, you’re a big puppetry fan. But unlike a lot of modern children’s media, which makes big winking references or jokes aimed at the adults who are likely watching alongside their kids, this BFG is rooted in childlike fascination and wonder and doesn’t once attempt to throw a bone to the adult chaperones and guardians in the room.

Should you go see The BFG if you’re a grown-up? Absolutely—especially if you like puppets or remember the book fondly. But it’s not made for you, and that’s okay.

At top: Matteo Scammell and Jessica Money in the Arden’s BFG. (Photo by Ashley Smith, Wide Eyed Studios.)

What, When, Where

The BFG. Based on the book by Roald Dahl, adapted for the stage by David Woo; directed by Whit MacLaughlin. $20-$45. Through January 21, 2024, at the Arden Theatre, 40 N 2nd Street. (215) 922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.


The Arden is dedicated to accessibility for everyone, including patrons who require accessible seating, have specific sensory needs, or benefit from ASL interpretation or assistive listening, audio description, or open captioning technology. For more information, visit the Arden’s accessibility page.

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