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What presumably will become a staple item in the roster of annual holiday season performances has made its first appearances in the Paul.Green Theater at UNC's Center for Dramatic Art in Chapel Hill. The Playmakers Repertory Company is presenting Rick Cummins and John Scoullar's stage adaptation of Antoine de St. Exupéry's The Little Prince. This well-known tale, espousing some lovely old-fashioned virtues, continues through December 16, with child-friendly early scheduling throughout the run. December 4th was what the PRC is calling a "Community Day," with inexpensive tickets and general admission—plus on this occasion a bonus of musical offerings by the Trekky Yuletide Orchestra playing in the lobby. (The group will return for a second Community Day Dec. 11.)
I'd never thought of The Little Prince as being a Christmas-season story, but it fits in well, with its theme of innocent wisdom come from the heavens redeeming the lost and embittered on desert Earth. It even has a lamb, which we must take on faith, as it is hidden in an imaginary box. Leaving the possible Christian analogies aside, the story is a wonderful fable about how to live, what is important to the soul, what a person's responsibilities are--and it is worthy of many re-readings, re-tellings and re-stagings. Cummins and Scoullar's adaptation, while not attaining the near-perfection of the little book, comes very close to its nature, and certainly does no violence to the gentle text.
Guest director Tom Quaintance, who has previous experience with the play, and the artistic team of McKay Coble (scene and costumer designer), Justin Townsend (lighting) and Michèl Marrano (sound) have created a wonderful stage world, rich with light, color, texture and big simple shapes. After a sort of prologue of a pilot losing engine control, the lights come up on the Aviator (PRC veteran Kenneth P. Strong) clambering into the sandy Sahara from the half-buried wreckage of his downed plane. Strong is moving and believable as he struggles alone, near death from thirst, until the Little Prince (Lesley Shires) appears. As the Little Prince tells the Aviator of his explorations, the characters he describes appear briefly upstage — just long enough for us to understand them as emblems of folly, weakness and wrong living. The play is more talk and image than action, and it is greatly to the credit of the writers, actors, director and designers that from the scant stocks of action, a real and satisfying drama is made. Part of what makes it all work is the use of musicians and dancers to do things like unfurl the sunset, creating activity to punctuate the stories. There are moments when the pace of nothing happening could be a little more rapid, but with this melancholic tale, a little too slow is far better than excess rapidity would be.
The strongest scene, and one with many memorable lines, shows the Little Prince encountering a Fox. Jason Powers, in a wonderful mask and tail, was very fine as the Fox, who teaches the Little Prince about taming another creature, and the obligations one then has to the tamed. Joy Jones was a knockout as the Snake, and Heaven Chijerae Stephens gave a vivid performance as the Rose, the Little Prince's beloved Rose, to return to whom he must sacrifice his shell of a body (with the assistance of the Snake).
The one grave and irremediable weakness of this production is the Little Prince himself. Or herself, I should say — and that is the problem. Lesley Shires does some very nice things with the speeches, but she does not successfully impersonate a boy. She is slender, petite, gamine, correctly costumed — but she is definitely a grown female. I don't think even a young girl would suffice here — I think this role really needs a boy for the story's magic to work.
Leaving the theater thinking about this, I saw him. The Little Prince. Well, his hair wasn't blond, and he was at least a foot too tall, but there he was, playing guitar and singing an unearthly harmony in the middle of the Trekky Yuletide Orchestra. It was the face that got me: unsullied, questing, innocent but wise--the beautiful face of a young boy or man with an open heart. I listened with delight to the whole set, from the Orchestra's CD A New Old-Fashioned Christmas, on Trekky Records. These twelve members of local bands who record on local label Trekky all love Christmas, so they got together for a week last summer to make some fresh and unusual arrangements of Christmas carols and standards, which they then recorded as a fundraiser for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. I thought the Grinch had already stolen Christmas this year, but I got my groove back with the TYO. If you can't hear them on the 11th at the Playmakers, catch them at the Cat's Cradle on Dec. 19. As The Little Prince reminds us so eloquently, the most important things are invisible — like faith, like love, like music.
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents The Little Prince Thursday-Friday, Dec. 6-7, at 7 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 8, 2 and 7 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 9, at 2 p.m.; Tuesday-Saturday, Dec. 11-15, at 7 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 16, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $10-$32. 919/962-PLAY or http://www.playmakersrep.org/. Note 1: There will be a free post-show discussion with production dramaturg Mark Perry on Dec. 9th. Note 2: The Trekky Yuletide Orchestra... will provide a free preshow concert at 6 p.m. on Dec. 11th, before a Tuesday Community Night performance, for which all tickets are $10 and seating is general admission. (You don't have to buy a ticket to attend the concert.). Note 3: There will be an all-access performance at 7 p.m. on Dec. 11th, which will be audio-described by Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh, NC (http://www.artsaccessinc.org/), and also features Braille playbills, large-print playbills, and a tactile tour (arranged in advance) for patrons with impaired vision. Note 4: There will be a special Educational Matinee at 10:30 a.m. on Dec. 12th - call for details. The Book: http://www.lepetitprince.com/en/ [inactive 6/09]. The Play: http://www.dramaticpublishing.com/product_info.php?products_id=863.