The title role in Olympia Family Theater’s “Lyle the Crocodile” is an unusual one, even for Kate Ayers.
Ayers specializes in nontraditional roles, including Puck, Peter Pan and, her most recent role, the faun Mr. Tumnus in the theater’s “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
But Lyle – a crocodile who finds himself living with an urban family in the play, opening Saturday – is out of the ordinary chiefly because, though Lyle is the play’s main character, he doesn’t speak.
“He communicates by pantomime,” said Jen Ryle, the play’s director and the theater company’s artistic director. “Everybody else talks or sings, and Lyle is completely silent, so it’s a very fun role.”
“I’m having a ball,” Ayers said. “It is challenging. I have to pay closer attention to everything that’s happening. I absorb everything going on around me all the time.”
She said she’s approaching the role in the style of a European clown.
“In European clowning, often clowns will tell a story in their acts without speaking,” she said. “It may be very funny, but then there is always something a little deeper.
“In clowning, you get down to your innermost vulnerable child inside. You strip away all the things we attain as an adult.”
Ayers picked up some clowning skills while working as the director of Indianapolis Children’s Theatre, where many of the performers had studied clowning. And as those who saw her as Mr. Tumnus can attest, the actress can communicate a great deal with gesture and facial expression.
“She’s such a fabulous physical comedian and actress,” Ryle said. “We’ve been joking since the first rehearsal, ‘Kate’s already off book; I don’t know about the rest of you.’ ”
Ayers gravitates toward unconventional roles, whether in children’s theater or Shakespeare.
“I find it so much easier,” she said. “There’s so much freedom. There’s not a lot of gender stereotyping. It’s just ‘let’s play,’ which is what we call drama. We call it a play.”
Lyle is definitely playful, which surprises people at first, since he is, after all, a crocodile.
“People judge him when they first see him and are frightened,” Ryle said, “but then he warms their hearts.”
“There are bigger social implications,” Ayers agreed, “but it’s a fun, light story, too.
“Lyle is that best friend that every child wants,” she said. “There’s a loyalty and a support that I think young children dream about. ... I don’t want to say that Lyle is imaginary, because he’s not, but he’s kind of like that imaginary friend who is always there for you.”
While the play is suitable for the very young, the writing will appeal to adults, as will the jazzy feel of the music, Ryle said.
Humorist Kevin Kling adapted the play from Bernard Waber’s books.
“He is a very funny writer, normally writing for adults,” Ryle said. “There’s a lot in the play that is clever beyond the books.
“I read a lot of scripts,” she added, “and I’m always looking for those gems that have great dialogue and humor that will capture the whole family.
“Parents do buy the tickets, so we hope they enjoy it as well.”
Lyle the Crocodile
What: Presented by Olympia Family Theater, the musical follows the adventures of a friendly crocodile and the family that takes him in. Written by Kevin Kling, it’s based on the early reader books by Bernard Waber.
When: 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, plus Dec. 7-8, 14-15, and 21-22; 7 p.m. Dec. 5- 6, 12-13, and 19-20; and 4:30 p.m. Dec. 14 and 21
Where: Minnaert Center for the Arts Black Box Theater at South Puget Sound Community College, 2011 Mottman Road SW, Olympia
Tickets: $16; $12 for students, seniors and military; $10 for children 12 and younger
Ages: The company recommends the play for ages 4 and older.