“When I was six years old, once upon a very long time ago, I made this drawing. I showed my masterpiece to the grown-ups and asked, “Does it frighten you?” But they said, “Why should anyone be frightened by a hat.” It was not a hat. So I drew it for them more clearly. Grown-ups always need to have things explained to them.”
The Aviator, from the play
Antoine De Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince has been translated into 200 languages, including Toba, a Northern Argentinean dialect where it was second, just after The Bible. Universally comprehensible and enchanting, it’s been passed from generation to generation since the original 1943 publication. If you don’t know the book, or, more importantly, if your children don’t know the book, this production is a perfect opportunity to introduce the wonderfully wise tale into your collective experience. If it’s a favorite, here’s a chance to observe the deepest unexpected friendship, and remind oneself of the joy of childlike wonder. Of course, you might go alone, but I strongly suggest you commandeer whatever kids you know and spread the good feelings around.
An aviator crash lands in the desert, his only thoughts to survive long enough to fix the plane. There’s nothing but heat and dunes. The bell-like sound of a child’s laughter is startling. “Please draw me a sheep,” demands The Little Prince. What?! Where?! The aviator protests he’s not an artist, but the boy knows the man used to draw …and insists. He has important reasons to want a sheep!
At center stage, there are two large, framed rings, joined like an open pocket watch. The bottom, about 18’, is larger. Filled with sand and harboring the 12” model of a crashed bi-plane, this is the desert. The standing ring, about 14’ serves to contain projected backgrounds-clouds, stars, a wheat field- as well as to periodically show silhouetted characters behind it. The aviator (Leonard C. Haas) is a grownup played by an actor. The Little Prince (Eileen Cella) is a 3’ puppet manipulated by a woman in black who I swear to you, one simply stops seeing. Scale means nothing here.
“This little person asked so many questions, but never answered the ones I asked,” the aviator narrates. Drawings in the sand (and later, his notebook) appear as projections, observed as they’re created. A rather original solution to the image of the sheep is accepted. The Little Prince delights in the music of the sunset, as do we. ‘Not the aviator. He’s been too long among grown-ups.
Man and boy, both stranded, talk of their almost solitary lives. As he speaks, we see The Little Prince (a smaller puppet) atop his own planet cleaning volcanoes, hacking at the roots of encroaching baobobs*, and marveling at the appearance of a single rose (Carol Anne Raffa’s voice & puppet) whom he grows to love despite her exceedingly imperious ways. Occupants of planets met when “drifting around the cosmos,” are manipulated by a standing puppeteer (Robert Smythe). Each represents an overblown, supposedly mature conception of what’s important. Each is shown, with utmost simplicity, to be a fool.
The Little Prince’s taming of an untamable fox (Michael Schupback) Is humorous, sweet and moving. His encounters with a boa constrictor are only worrisome for adults. Both man and boy must find their way home, but not before they learn about love and connection, each in his own way according to his own needs. The ending is beautifully handled. You will exit the theater listening to laughter, under a sky filled with stars. Grown-ups may need handkerchiefs. Children accept the story as told by their pint sized representative. They know The Little Prince has gone home.
Both acting and deft physical manipulation are filled with accessible nuance.
Leonard C. Haas (Aviator) strikes just the right note of pig-headed adult lurching back towards the clarity of childhood. His wonder is contagious.
Eileen Cella (Little Prince) should record her laughter for purchase. It’s truly as one imagines the music of the spheres. Her characterization is innocent and charming.
Michael Schupbach (Fox) is as nimble as the puppet he animates helping the human disappear. His portrayal is that of an uncomplicated animal, smart about the nature of things. The voice is slightly gruff and entirely appealing.
Carol Anne Raffa’s rose attitude is met with repeated giggles. Her complaining moans are perfection.
Robert Smythe does nicely with his various characters. Each is pompous in a different way.
Director Susan D. Atkinson handles human and puppet alike with grace and caring. Interaction is as credible as it can be. Movement within the staging area is varied. The use of projections and shadows is effective. Pacing is excellent.
Tom Gleeson’s Set is inspired. The two rings work beautifully with Daniel Brodie’s childlike images (Projections) to conjure a multitude of scenic enhancement. A pop up rose garden is surprising and pleasing as is the screen’s change into the Prince’s planet.
William Neal’s Sound Design is – ethereal.
Michael Schupbach’s Puppets are almost all splendid. I’d’ve wished the king were larger in relationship to the Prince (you’ll see) and that the snake be more articulated and dark in feeling.
Rick Cummins and John Scoullar have re-imagined their 1993 musical adaptation as a play for this Bristol Riverside Theater Production. “Puppets are able to express such subtle emotion with the tilt of a head or the sag of shoulders.” Amy Kaisser, Managing Director, The Bristol.
In my opinion, the script could be skewed just a bit younger without altering concepts. There are words that feel like road bumps. I was, however, grateful not to hear modern colloquialisms that pepper many reinterpretations. This is, and should remain, a timeless story.
The young audience was completely silent and rapt but for the very occasional comment and giggles.
Arrive at the theater twenty minutes early in order not to miss the terrific exhibition two flights down. There’s a really big papier mache model of The Little Prince’s planet to walk around, a map and history of St. Exupery’s interesting life, sketches of the puppet designs, and information about boa constrictors and asteroids. The exhibit enriches the live show. The always thoughtful/appropriate New Victory, has authored every bit of signage in language children can understand.
The piece runs slightly over an hour without intermission, so you can’t visit between acts.
Remember, restrooms first.
*The baobab can grow up to 25 meters tall and can live for several thousand years. It looks like it has been picked out of the ground and stuffed back in upside-down.
Photos by Alexsey Photography
Bristol Riverside Theater’s Production of
The Little Prince
By Rick Cummins & John Scoullar
From the book by Antoine De Saint-Exupery
Directed by Susan D. Atkinson
The New Victory Theater
209 West 42nd Street
646-223-3010 or NewVictory.org
Through October 16, 2011