Review: Stage adaptation of The Tin Drum captures book's magic realism

Posted Dec 12, 2013 by David Silverberg
One of the most popular books to come out of Germany has been adapted to the English stage for the first time. Toronto's UnSpun Theatre wonderfully brings The Tin Drum to life using creative set design, pitch-perfect acting and lively dialogue.
From the stage adaptation of The Tin Drum  performed by UnSpun Theatre
From the stage adaptation of The Tin Drum, performed by UnSpun Theatre
Courtesy UnSpun Theatre
It isn't easy to adapt a 600-page novel sprawling across decades and battlefields and fantastical scenarios. The Tin Drum's coming-of-age saga follows little Oskar Matzerath as he narrates his life story from the confines of an asylum. We're taken back to the the late 1890s and then shuttled forward decade by decade to learn how his family has shaped his precocious experiences.
UnSpun Theatre’s compelling adaptation by Chris Hanratty and Shira Leuchter got the blessing of author Gunter Grass, and Toronto audiences should be overjoyed he stamped this play with his approval. Jesse Aaron Dwyre as Oskar is spot-on with both his drumming skills and playful personality; he has to dive into a three-year-old's skin one moment, and then 20 minutes later adapt to Oskar's growth (well, not physical growth, but we won't give anything else away). All the while, Oskar is attached to his drum, finding solace in the toy like a baby would with a pacifier.
Magic realism is at the heart of The Tin Drum, a theme many would be familiar with if they read the works of Salman Rushdie. Oskar has the ability to break glass with his screaming voice, while a woman he meets later in life can read into people's hearts to learn their background. By mixing fantasy with the painful reality of Nazi Germany, we're given a peek into a transforming country from the innocent eyes of a young boy who just wants to make sense of the world around him.
Love triangles are challenging young Oskar throughout The Tin Drum, first with his German father, Alfred (Gordon Bolan), his Polish mother, Agnes (Margaret Evans), and her cousin Jan (Cyrus Lane); later Oskar himself experiences blushing love, and how he navigates this new emotional maturity is fascinating to watch.
As an indie theatre group, UnSpun had to get creative with set and sound design. To mimic fire crackling, actors crinkle sheets of paper. They attach boots to broom handles and smack the shoes on the floor to resemble a Nazi marching line. Everything feels very DIY without resembling an amateurish poorly-organized production.
What you're left with at the end of The Tin Drum is not only wonderment at how a boy overcomes tragedy, but how a small theatre company pulls off an ambitious adaptation of one of the most memorable German books of all time.