If you were a stage director and the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge asked you to direct an adaptation of Roald Dahl's beloved children's book "James and the Giant Peach," your response would probably be quick and enthusiastic: "Yes!" But, after pondering it for a few minutes, you might start to think, "Uh-oh, that was a really bad idea."
Anyone who tackles this project immediately faces one challenge after another: How, on stage, do you create a house-sized peach that rolls down a hill and crushes two cruel aunts? How do you make that peach fly, float and impale itself on the Empire State Building? And we haven't even gotten to the sharks yet.
On the written page, Dahl was confined only by his feverish imagination. The stage, on the other hand, operates strictly under the harsh laws of gravity.
"It's a huge undertaking," says Dmitry Troyanovsky, the guy who said "yes." He directs the musical adaptation of "James and the Giant Peach" that runs Dec. 17-31 at the American Repertory Theater's Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge.
"It's a very fascinating challenge," adds Troyanovsky. "How do you tell this very fantastical and cinematic story on stage? You've got magic creatures, and the flying, floating and rolling of the peach. How do you do all that and still tell the story clearly? How do you do it in an imaginative, theatrical and maybe somewhat-abstract way?"
It may sound like the director has more questions than answers, but it's not long before he's offering a peek inside rehearsals, where he, his design team and his actors are trying to build a better peach.
"We've been playing with scale, and it's working very well," says Troyanovsky, whose insights on the musical are rendered with a Russian accent, forged during his childhood in Kiev. "If you don't want to build an enormous papier mache peach on stage, then you have to utilize all sizes, from a regular peach to a giant balloon. It's tough, but it's interesting to accomplish. We have to rely on the magic of theater. It's a rough, old-fashioned magic of shadows and music and puppetry."
As he crafts these moments on stage, Troyanovsky occasionally recalls the way he once handled the immense challenge of directing streamlined versions of "Hamlet," "Macbeth," and "Romeo and Juliet" that needed to be one hour each and capable of traveling with a handful of actors in a van.
"The Ghost in 'Hamlet' was just a crown, suspended from a bamboo pole, levitating in the air," he says. "It made the scene even more magical and ghostly."
That's also a good example of how audiences and actors are often partners in the process of creating good theater. Patrons who attended that "Hamlet" could either choose to see a crown on a pole or a ghost's visitation from purgatory. When it comes to making stage magic work, Troyanovsky isn't afraid to put some of the responsibility on the audience, which, for "James," will range in age from about 5 to 85.
"In rehearsal, I think we've found a perfect balance of things to activate the imaginations of parents and kids," he says. "We're asking them to be co-creators with us."
It's also a process of trial-and-error.
"You come in with a plan, you explore it in rehearsal, and, when necessary, you have to be brave enough to say, 'That was a good idea, but we need to start again with a new idea,' " says the director, a graduate of the Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University and now a theater professor at Brandeis University.
The musical, which features actors from the Institute's class of 2017, is based on a script by British playwright David Wood, who confronted the challenge of bringing Dahl's unique voice to the stage. The plot is filled with Dahl's trademark dark humor and odd flights of fancy.
Little James Trotter once lived a happy life with his parents, but when they die, he's forced to move in with two evil aunts. His freedom comes from an old peach tree, and one peach in particular that doesn't stop growing. Inside the peach, James finds a menagerie of enormous invertebrates - there's a grasshopper, a centipede, a ladybug and more - and together they embark on a series of strange adventures. And, Troyanovsky observes, along the way, they become a family.
"I hope the audience will get a sense that, in the end, the story is about finding a home," says the director. "'James and the Giant Peach' has all those special and unusual things that we associate with Dahl - dark humor, awful adults and off-kilter moments - but it's also a very humanistic tale: A child in very difficult circumstances finds a home and a family - a very unusual family, but still, a family."
Troyanovsky thinks the ART chose the right season to stage this musical.
"It's a great message for the holidays, a great time for this story when the country feels like it's so much on edge about the state of the country and the future," he says. "The book leaves us with the idea of finding a family, even if it's not the one we originally expected. There's joy in this story. There's hope in it."
And it's understandable that the director has his own personal take on the musical's ending. It was 1989 when Troyanovsky and his family arrived in New York, fleeing the Soviet Union.
"When James descends on New York," he says, "I think of him as a little refugee."