The Little Prince
Through Dec. 16
Did Antoine de Saint-Exupéry somehow get it wrong? Is the essential not always invisible to the eye? The persuasive case is on display at Paul Green Theater through Dec. 16, in Playmakers Rep's production of The Little Prince.
I'll confess I'm always a bit leery of giving the nod to any December show that can even be marginally marketed toward children. By this point, we whisper no secret in observing that the terms "holiday classic" and "family show" have all but become code words for super-sized portions of theatrical junk food, with hambone acting lovingly dished up as the main entrée. (By now these shows and their ilk have served millions. So has McDonald's.)
In fairness, you should know there's a question that's always in the back of my mind whenever I see a production like The Little Prince: "Is the region really up for 10 years of this? Do I truly want to see this show a decade down the road?" The reason should be obvious. If the first such production is successful, that, in all likelihood, is what we're going to get.
It's decided, then. Let's have years to savor Kenneth Strong's Aviator, an ordinary man caught in three extraordinary circumstances: crashing a plane in the Sahara Desert, living to tell the tale, and then meeting a curious emissary from a distant star. More iterations, please, of Lesley Shires' clearly innocent but uncannily direct discourse as the title character. And even then, more time, if possible, to spend in McKay Coble's minimal—and then suddenly fantastic—desert landscape of the imagination.
We must credit Coble and guest director Tom Quaintance with some very tricky navigation in this production. It must have been quite tempting—and would have been too easy—to drown Saint-Exupéry's potent metaphor for children and adults in the spectacle that holiday shows always succumb to. Thankfully for us and the audiences to come, the pair apparently realized the inherent contradiction of placing a show about the primacy of invisible qualities—love, hope and what connect all beings in their loneliness—in the glibbest and glitziest of packages.
Not that there's any shortage of visual stimuli in this Playmakers production. The aviator's fateful night flight before the crash is effectively rendered with little more than shadows and, yes, flashlights at center stage. By contrast, the sunsets of the desert explode with color and motion in Quaintance's staging, as actors in leotards fling orange and red banners and flags to Matthew Murphy's Afropop-tinged music. Coble's costumes for the silent Bedouins who carry the constellations of the night sky recall the designs of Julie Taymor, as do her colorful mask, fabric and mechanical designs for those badlands denizens, the fox (an amusing Jason Powers) and the snake (a thoughtful Joy Jones).
Just as the pageantry starts to overwhelm the conversation between Strong's aviator and Shires' prince, the most unlikely thing of all occurs: It stops. Yes, the show is further punctuated by visits to the sole inhabitants of several curious planets: a businessman who can see no farther than the edge of his account book, a king with no purpose without someone to order about, a geographer unaware of the beauty of his planet's terrain, a lamplighter lost in work. Each of them is uniquely lonely. Saint-Exupéry intends for us to ask if we resemble them. But even their colorful, nearly theme-park comings and goings point back to the author's primary meditation on the distance between things, and the few (and therefore precious) things that can possibly span that distance.
Two tickets, please. For next year's performance. Thanks.
E-mail Byron at firstname.lastname@example.org.