The Little Prince
Produced by Round House Theatre
Reviewed by Rosalind LacyA plane with an open cockpit makes a crash landing during a thunder storm in the Sahara Desert, miles from help. As the Aviator fixes his plane, an extraterrestrial person, the Little Prince, pops out of the cockpit. He orders the Aviator to “Draw me a sheep.” Then he tells tales of his quest through the galaxy to find a more perfect world, free of narrow minded, selfish people. Through the wide-eyed, innocent eyes of a child, life on earth doesn’t make sense.Once we accept that Antoine De Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince is nonsensical, then we are in our inner child. We understand: The grown up world is contradictory and absurd. But The Little Prince, the whimsical classic that still sells over a million copies all over the world, proves to be a challenge to stage. Although Rachel Portman’s opera version is sublime, the adaptation by Rick Cummins and John Scoullar, now playing at Bethesda Round House Theatre, only partially succeeds in capturing some of the magic moments and poignant philosophy from Saint-Exupery’s original.Actress Jamie Klassel creates a headstrong Little Prince who charms the Aviator and succeeds in sustaining a playful mood. Craig Wallace projects a commanding presence as The Man or Aviator, and doubles as the debonair Fox, who shares words of wisdom that seem to epitomize the play: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” The basic tension in the plot is epitomized in the arguments between the busy Aviator and the Little Prince. We’re in the mind of the Aviator, who is dehydrated and short of supplies. The Aviator thinks it’s important to survive whereas for the Little Prince beauty is more important. What’s invisible is important enough to die for. If the sheep inside a box eats the flower, then beauty will be destroyed. There’s some kind of logic at work here but it’s from a wild imagination. And that’s the challenge. Invisible to the eye is tough to stage.Eric Ting stages the allegory in a way that should appeal to both children and adults but sometimes falls short.The Little Prince tells the Aviator he is searching for his beautiful, but vain Rose, haughtily played by Elaine Yuko Qualter. The Little Prince’s space travel is acted out by conversations with actors on a framed puppet stage, as if their portraits are hanging in an art gallery. Every time the curtain is drawn and reopened, we meet a different grown up on a different planet. We meet The King, who gives orders nobody follows; The Conceited Man, the most admired and only man living; The Geographer, who owns books but knows nothing about his natural world; and The Businessman, who believes he owns the stars because he counts them with an adding machine. To the Little Prince, all grown ups are strange, except the Lamplighter, who can never take a vacation or sleep because his asteroid turns so fast. A day only lasts a minute and he has to stay up to pull the chain to turn the light on, then off and say good morning and good night. But the Little Prince finds The Lamplighter the most worthy of friendship because he’s the only person who thinks of someone besides himself. And the Little Prince feels compelled to find his flower to water her every hour.What’s missing is a more menacing threat. In this version the tension is subtle, never clearly concrete, as in a Peter Pan story or a Grimm’s fairy tale. That’s because the baobabs, or evil forces, are invisible, and glossed over in bland talking. The Little Prince wrests the baobabs out of the ground with tweezers and a crowbar but we’ve left to imagine them on our own. Good versus evil needs to be visible to create dramatic tension.In the original book, baobabs are something you can’t get rid of once they take over. They’re bad things, like weeds grown wild. They take over and split a planet apart. In Rachel Portman’s opera, the baobabs are seen as green finger-like, horrifying tubular growths that almost crush The Little Prince, like a totalitarian government or materialism.It’s important to be reminded that Exupery’s book, published in 1943 during Nazi occupation of France, really touched on edgier topics. How does an artist stay true to his ideals in a world of war and totalitarian regimes?In Act II, there’s a strong scene between the Little Prince and The Fox, who wants to be tamed. Why? Because then he won’t have to run and hide from hunters. He will have time to dream and philosophize about what’s really important in life: Whereas, in contrast, the Aviator is too busy to seek the meaning of life. After the Fox is tamed, he tells the Prince: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.” Dialogue filled with words of profound wisdom challenge the audience to think but tends to dissipate dramatic tension clear through to the end. Unless you accept that the Aviator’s mind wanders in hallucination.The scenes with The Snake, who could be played with more menace, suggest that it’s hard to die for your beliefs but when the time comes, the passing is peaceful. Ultimately it’s The Snake who sends the Little Prince back to his beautiful rose on his tiny planet.Because this is an open thrust stage with no curtains, scene changes need to be smoother. Transitions seem disjointed. But a technical problem like that is easier to mend than a more basic one with the script’s dramatic structure.Okay, an attempt is made at the end of Act I when the Aviator sends us into Intermission by telling us: “It’s such a secret place the land of tears.” We are left to think how personal a thing philosophy is. The paradox is that our inner child, our private, secret place where thoughts wander and go anywhere is a sad place because you have to suppress being silly and creative. So based on the Round House mission to make their Literary Works Project at home in the Lobby, the Purple Planet Room is available for children to make their dreams concrete. Before, during and after the show, in the Purple Planet Room, kids can try out some lighting plans, set and costume designs of their own. The room allows kids to draw their way into reading story books. So here’s a moral: Pry your children away from the baobab in television. Isn’t experiencing live theater of ideas better than passive television viewing? A mother and son sitting next to me on opening night left inspired enough to read the original book.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, adapted by Rick Cummins and John Scoullar, continues through December 10, at the Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD, 20824. Performances on Wednesdays, 7:30 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 8 p.m. No performance on Thanksgiving, Thurs., Nov. 23. Tickets range from $20-$55, depending on date and time. Children, $20. Discounts for 10 or more. Parking available. To purchase tickets, visit www.roundhousetheatre.org or call Box Office: 240-644-1100.