With its intricate, flashback-laden plot and dependence on a vivid desert setting, Louis Sachar’s juvenile novel “Holes” isn’t a stage natural. But the huge popularity of both 1998 book and 2003 Disney feature (a big DVD hit after modest theatrical perf) made translation into a third medium inevitable, if not necessarily wise. The version that’s kicking off Shorenstein-Nederlander’s three-part “Family Stage” series in San Francisco is a pedestrian adaptation that crams too much busy material into one act, at the cost of retaining any flavor.
While kids excited to hear familiar lines recited live may leave satisfied enough, their parents will wonder what the fuss is about. The script — credited to Sachar himself, though anyone with a copy of the book, a highlighter and scissors could have arrived at this result — is reluctant to leave out any original incident or dialogue. So what ends up onstage is a hurried but flat series of blackout-separated scenes that feel like 50% explication; they also strain to fill the large Orpheum stage in visual terms.
Nailed for a crime he didn’t commit, hapless teen Stanley Yelnats (Devon Graye) is sent to dusty Texas outpost Camp Green Lake, which sports nothing green or wet — the lake dried up long ago. There, male delinquents spend every day digging 5x5x5 holes in the hard earth, under sweltering sun. This is supposed to “improve character,” but as Stanley eventually gleans, the imperious and seldom-seen lady Warden (Cat Thompson) is really using her cheap young labor to search for treasure lost more than a century ago.
Stanley and Zero (Robert Garcia), the quiet kid he teaches to read, at last rebel and expose the abusive staff’s perfidy — while uncovering a history that links their ancestral paths in fantastical ways.
The book’s mix of surprising cruelty (it’s practically “I Am a Fugitive on a Subadult Chain Gang”), humor and whimsy is reduced to breakneck plottiness here, with no room — or design ingenuity — for capturing the physical atmosphere that dominated tome and movie. The many flashbacks to 19th-century Latvia and the Wild West are woven in ably enough.
But there’s little in script or staging to separate the short evening from bare-bones story theater, albeit at notably higher ticket prices. Without touring gigs on the immediate horizon, this production clearly was held to a tight budget.
Rather than going for a more imaginative approach via projections or abstracted scenery, the show’s cheap-looking physical aspects (a painted desert backdrop, wheeled-on building front, etc.) are dully literal-minded. Nor do occasional snatches of bluesy guitar or hip-hop beats add much, beyond underlining one more thing the show could be but isn’t (such as an actual musical).
Younger cast members are adequate, but aside from Greg Ayers’ spazzy Zigzag, they don’t do much to distinguish their broad-stroke characters. Michael Ray Wisely and Robert Parsons have some fun with inept camp authorities Mr. Pendanski and Mr. Sir, respectively. Thompson fails to impress as the Cruella De Vil-in-blue-jeans Warden; strangely, neither she nor Sigourney Weaver in the movie make anything of the figure’s snippy trademark, “Excuuuuse me!”