Review: “The Little Prince”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Lookingglass Theatre Company, Water Tower Water Works, 21 N. Michigan Ave.
When: through March 16
Tickets: $45-$75

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Ever since it was published in 1943, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince” (“Le Petit Prince”) has been captivating hearts and minds with its touching story of an aviator who crashes in the Sahara Desert, meets a star-traveling young prince visiting Earth from his own private asteroid and learns about what’s truly important in life.

Although the pilot-author intended the novella with his charming watercolor illustrations for children, the truth is that its satire of grown-up institutions and pursuits probably speaks more to adults. The same is true of the basic message: “One sees clearly only with the heart” and “anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

It’s no surprise, then, that “The Little Prince” has been adapted for stage and screen (large and small) many times. The efforts, not counting radio broadcasts, have ranged from plays, musicals and operas to television series, claymation and Japanese anime. Some have fallen flat. Nonethless, more are in the works.

Lookingglass Theatre Company’s version makes the most of the ensemble’s many talents to bring the tale vividly to life. The program credits the adaptation by Rick Cummins and John Schoullar, but director David Catlin builds on that imaginatively using everything from Lookingglass’ trademark acrobatics to the actor-musicians seated along one side of the stage.

The stage itself is a creative coup. Courtney O’Neill’s scenic design starts with an undulating white platform that simultaneously resembles the desert and a piece of paper unfurling down a mountainside. The Little Prince (Amelia Hefferon) appears from on high, dressed by costume designer Sally Dolembo to simulate Saint-Exupéry’s illustrations, and the Aviator (Ian Barford) draws the things the boy commands, beginning with sheep until he comes up with the satisfactory one: the sheep in a box. The Aviator’s downed plane is off to the side throughout, a constant reminder of his plight, especially since he only has enough water to last a week.

The inventive stagecraft knows no bounds, and you can almost feel Catlin and his designers dreaming up ways to solve the visual problems. Some effects are surprising in their simplicity, like the blue-rubber-gloved hands that represent the baobab trees the Little Prince has to weed out to keep them from overrunning his planet. Others are dazzling and occasionally disturbing, among them the planets peopled respectively by an accountant hanging upside down to count his money, a geographer encased in a clear globe, and an old lamplighter who displays more humanity than the others. The Little Prince’s beloved Rose (Louise Lamson), whose imperious, needy ways spark his journey, initially descends from the ceiling, and her skirts unfold, a little like a real flower. The Desert Rose (Lauren Hirte) he and the Aviator meet in during their search for water is even more entrancing.

Of course, the Aviator’s experience is the evening’s centerpiece, since by the time they meet, the Little Prince has found out what he wanted to know — about “taming” another — and is ready to go home. The pilot’s quest is for more than water, too: As he tells us at the outset, his imagination and artistic inclination were thwarted when he was six, because grown-ups couldn’t see his drawing of an elephant inside a boa constrictor as anything more than a hat. He wants not only to repair his plane but also to rediscover the wonder of childhood.

As the Aviator, Barford captures the anger and frustration of a man who is at the end of his rope both physically and spiritually, but as he listens to the Little Prince’s, stories, we don’t really see him change gradually from someone who was irritated by the demanding boy to a kind of willing student. The necessary melancholy and sadness also are missing, even from the bittersweet ending of what the boy endures to return to his own planet and his Rose, who he now understands is unique in all the world to him. Hefferon’s Little Prince, on the other hand, conveys just the right mix of willfulness, whimsy, wit and wisdom to keep us thoroughly engaged.

The rest of the cast — including Adeoye, Kareem Bandealy, Kasey Foster and Raymond Fox, as well as Lamson and Hirte, all in multiple roles — is first rate. Special props go to Bandealy for making the snake endlessly fascinating in all his ambiguous evil. Kudos also to the entire design team and to Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi for her actrobatic/circus choreography.

“The Little Prince” is deceptively difficult to stage really well, and for the most part, Lookingglass pulls it off better than most I can think of by finding a good balance of intimate storytelling and homespun spectacle.