The Little Prince: A Review

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The Aviator (Paul Cambberdella, left) and the Little Prince (Alden Swanson) in the Garfield Center’s production of Antoine de St. Exubery’s beloved tale, The Little Prince     Photo credit: Bryan Betley

The Little Prince, a classic children’s book beloved by both children and adults, has been transformed into “a performance art piece” for the Garfield Theater’s current production.

Directed by theater manager Bryan Betley, The Little Prince is based on the illustrated book by Antoine de St. Exupery, a French aviator, writer and illustrator who wrote the book in 1943 after escaping from Europe during the German occupation of World War II. A pioneering commercial pilot, he had survived a 1935 crash in the Sahara Desert while trying to set a long-distance speed record. Though a pacifist, he joined the French Air Force in the early stages of the fight against the Nazis.  He flew unarmed reconnaissance missions. After France was defeated and occupied by Nazi Germany, the French Air Force was dissolved, leaving St. Exubery without a plane to fly.  He then spent time in America trying to build support for the liberation of Europe. Afterwards, he joined the Free French Air Force based in North Africa, despite being over the maximum age for service. Flying a Lockheed P-38 out of North Africa, he disappeared over the Mediterranean in July 1944 and is believed to have died at that time. The wreckage of a plane later identified as the one he was flying was recovered in 2004.

The book, one of several written during his stay in America, features the author’s own quirky watercolor illustrations. It has been translated into some 300 languages. Selling nearly two million copies annually, it has been adapted many times into stage plays, film and TV scripts,  audio recordings, even ballet and opera. Betley lists it, in his director’s note, as “a household story that’s always been present in my life.”

Famous quotes from the book include the little prince exclaiming that “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them” and “now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

The Little Prince (Alden Swanson, right) shares a tender moment with, the Rose (Zuzu Kusmider).     Photo credit: Bryan Betley

The plot is presented as the recollections of an aviator who, like St. Exupery himself – as told in one of his earlier books — crashes in the Sahara desert. While trying to repair his plane, he encounters a strange young boy who asks him to draw a sheep. After a few attempts, he draws a box and tells the boy there is a sheep in it – which the boy accepts. This begins a relationship that lasts several days during which the boy – the prince, as the aviator thinks of him – tells the story of his life. It turns out he comes from a tiny planet, which is threatened by an overgrowth of baobab trees, which he wants the sheep to eat – while at the same time not eating a sentient rose the prince has come to love.  In further conversation, he tells of his visits to other planets and the people he meets there, all of whom are in some way closed-minded and self-centered. In further adventures on Earth, the prince meets a poisonous snake, several talking roses, and a fox with whom he carries on discussions.

Alden Swanson plays the title character of The Little Prince, playing at the Garfield Center for the Arts     Photo credit: Jeff Weber

The story runs through a surprising range of emotions, and touches on several deep philosophical issues in the course of its telling. The stage version at the Garfield Center is more an impressionistic recreation of the story than a literal landscape for the plot. It has a whimsical, almost fairy-tale feeling at times, with talking animals and flowers. At the same time, it has a degree of social satire one doesn’t usually encounter in a children’s story. The production is visually very striking, with lots of movement and bright costuming and a good use of different levels on the stage.

Betley has recruited a cast that includes many young actors, though this is not in any way just a children’s play. The two main parts, the aviator and the prince, are filled by Paul Camberdella and Alden Swanson, who is a fourth grader at Garnet Elementary School.

Camberdella, who has appeared in several Garfield productions including Mr. Roberts, does a good job as the aviator, projecting a serious and sympathetic persona as he tries to understand the little prince’s fantastic adventures while tending to the practical task of getting his plane to work so he can escape the desert. He adeptly portrays the character’s transition from an initial annoyance and dismissal of the strange young child to a growing appreciation, friendship, and finally love for the little prince.

Swanson, who says she might become an actress when she grows up, is excellent in the play’s central role. She is delightful as the curious young alien, combining a youthful enthusiasm and a sense of philosophical depth that are part of the reason St. Exupery’s book has held its appeal in a way that others of the era have not. A very nice performance.

Aaron Sensening, a fifth grader from Sudlersville, has a substantial role as the fox. With previous stage appearances at the Garfield’s Musicamp and A Christmas Carroll and in Church Hill Theater’s Orlando Rising, he effectively conveys the fox’s character – at first wild and suspicious of humans, later willing to become closer with his new friend, the prince. The scenes in which he appears are some of the best in the play, as he tells the little prince how to “tame” him.  He brought a definitely foxy energy to the role, his red coverall and realistic, bushy tail adding just the right visual touch.

Ben Anthony plays the role of the snake. A veteran of Garfield Playmakers camps, he has also appeared in Miracle on 34th Street. He gives the character the mixture of danger and attraction that is essential to his appeal.

Zuzu Kusmider and Kaya Rickets are cast as flowers – the prince’s beloved rose and a desert flower, respectively. Additional speaking roles are played by Chris Williams as the King, Ray Candella as the conceited lady, Tilly Pelczar as the business woman, Joe Diggs as the lamplighter and Brendan Cooper as the geographer. While their parts are brief, each brings a certain personality to the usually humorous scene they appear in.  And each of those scenes has a lesson, a moral, an insight , something about the soul of that person. The king was kingly, calling out orders to be obeyed by his royal command; the conceited lady was very conceited; the business woman was very efficient and business-like.  The lamplighter noted how the days went faster and faster, evening following morning with seemingly less and less time in between to enjoy the day.

Members of the cast of The Little Prince show a “frightening” drawing by the Aviator of a” elephant being eaten by a boa constrictor.”     Photo credit: Bryan Betley

Filling out the cast and taking multiple roles as flowers, stars, echoes, and “visual narrators” are Alex Raimond, Bella Williams, Ben Rickets, Severin Schut, Haley Pemberton, Delaney McCreary and Aiden Dunlap.  They do a wonderful job of portraying various animals and elements in the desert.  They are especially effective as the birds who carry the little prince away and,  in the very first scene, as the tail and wings of the airplane as it flies, then shakes, plunges, and crashes into the desert.

Joe Diggs as the Lamplighter and alden Swanson as the Little Prince

At times, some of the younger actors were hard to hear; especially when they were not facing directly forward  or when they delivered their lines too quickly. This became less evident in the second act, perhaps after some reminders that they needed to project to the full house or perhaps after  was adjusting to the individual vocal styles. This is the kind of problem that usually gets worked out after the first couple of performances.

The set is a visual delight, with a background of fanciful constellations and a large crashed airplane to one side of the stage. Piano music by Seth Betley adds to the atmosphere.

Play-goers unfamiliar with St. Exupery’s original story may find the plot a bit slow at first, but the pace picks up soon after the beginning and the energy is palpable in the later scenes. Don’t expect a traditional story line. The play is more about various philosophies of life and conflicting emotions. Written during wartime, it asks what are the really important issues in life. So what if you are the most beautiful lady of fashion or the most successful business owner when everything around you is in danger?  Young audiences are likely to unquestioningly immerse themselves in the delightful fantasy aspects of talking animals and flowers while adults are more likely to enjoy and ponder the philosophical aspects.

This is Bryan Betley’s first time as a director and he did an excellent job, especially in the choreography of the plane crash and the flowers as well as the staging of the scenes with the little prince and the fox.  What could have been chaotic scenes with too many young actors running around or static with just two actors talking instead flowed naturally.  We look forward to more from Betley.

The Little Prince will continue through Feb. 25, with performances Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 for general admission, $15 for seniors and military personnel, and $10 for students of all ages.  To purchase tickets visit the theater website or call the box office at 410-810-2060.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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