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A little bat's bravery

ON STAGE What: Silverwing Where: McPherson Playhouse When: Friday, Saturday and Dec.13 at 7 p.m., Sunday and Dec.14 at 2 p.m. Tickets: $23.50 (tel.


What: Silverwing

Where: McPherson Playhouse

When: Friday, Saturday and Dec.13 at 7 p.m., Sunday and Dec.14 at 2 p.m.

Tickets: $23.50 (tel. 250 386-6121)

Kenneth Oppel's trilogy of Silverwing novels for young people have sold more than a million copies globally. The first Silverwing book was also adapted as a TV series and a play -- the latter now being staged by Victoria's Kaleidoscope Theatre.

So what's capturing the imaginations of children around the world?

"It's the bats," said Oppel, a former Victorian contacted at his Toronto home. "Kids are fascinated by them. They're animals that have a lot of mystery, some menace about them even."

The first novel, published as Silverwing in 1997, is about a runt bat named Shade. He initially causes trouble by looking at the sun (verboten in the bat world). Then he becomes separated from his family during their annual migration to the south. Poor little Shade is on his own until he meets another bat, Marina, who becomes an ally. Thickening the plot are giant cannibal bats, albino bats, militaristic owls, paranoid rats ... and some really tough pigeons.

Playwright Kim Selody adapted Silverwing for the stage in 2005. It premiered at Winnipeg's Manitoba Theatre for Young People, and was subsequently staged at Vancouver's Carousel Theatre in 2006. Now Kaleidoscope Theatre is opening a third production of Silverwing tomorrow night at the McPherson Playhouse, using a cast of nine professional actors and 25 teen performers from Kaleidoscope's youth company.

Trouble-making Shade is played by Timothy Johnston, who also starred in Kaleidoscope's production of Aladdin Jr. Marina is portrayed by Amanda Lisman, a rising stage star who follows Silverwing with a lead role in Cyrano de Bergerac at the Stratford Festival.

Selecting a play based on a wildly successful kids' novel has proved a canny move for Kaleidoscope. Performances reserved for Greater Victoria schools are approaching sell-out, although there are still tickets for public performances. The rush on tickets is no doubt a relief for Kaleidoscope Theatre, given the cost of such a large-cast show.

"It's expensive," said Kaleidoscope artistic director Leslie Bland, who's directing.

"It adds a big chunk of money to our bottom line. But hey, that's the difference between doing a show that's professional and one that's community theatre."

The biggest challenge in directing Silverwing is the logistical difficulties in moving a cast of 34 around on stage, he said. At the same time, having such a crowd -- increasingly rare in theatre -- allows for bold dramatic effects.

The bat characters in Silverwing are costumed as a mix between animals and humans. They have wings, for instance, but no masks and little makeup, so that the audience can still make out facial expressions. Marauding rats have a "hip-hop, gangsta flare" while strong-arming pigeons bear similarities to street gangs.

While it's plenty of fun, Bland said Shade's ability to assert himself and think independently sends a serious message to audience members.

"You don't have to accept a rule or a law just because it's a rule or a law. If something's unjust, then perhaps you need to be brave enough to challenge it."

Having seen previous stage productions of Silverwing, Oppel has no plans to see the Kaleidoscope show.

He's writing a novel for young people set in the Victoria area. Oppel lived here when he was young, graduating from St. Michaels University School. In fact, he wrote his first kids' book when he was a student at St. Michaels. A family friend sent it to writer Roald Dahl of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame.

An impressed Dahl found a publisher for the book, Colin's Fantastic Video Adventure.

As for Oppel's upcoming novel, he's reluctant to divulge more than a tantalizing hint or two.

"It takes place in the '70s," he said. "And it involves a chimpanzee."