SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, Nov. 29, 2017 (Gephardt Daily) — “The Little Prince” novella was one of my favorite books growing up, and I remember feeling like although I loved it, I could never quite put my finger on why it was so very magical.
The novella is evergreen; translated into 300 languages and dialects, with annual sales still topping 2 million copies yearly and past sales totaling over 140 million copies worldwide.
Thus it follows that I was slightly nervous to see the adaption of the 1943 work by French aristocrat, writer, poet and pioneering aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on the stage.
My fear was that it wouldn’t retain some of the glittering feelings of abstract joy buffering up against sharp sadness that the novella evokes when you read it or it is read to you.
Adapted for the stage by John Scoullar and Rick Cummins, “The Little Prince” follows a pilot stranded in the Sahara Desert. He meets a young prince, fallen from the sky, who regales him with tales of life among the stars. At the heart of these adventures lies the lesson that “One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Sackerson has the difficult task then, of summoning up that “essential” for audience members in a way that is not necessarily seen but felt.
And thankfully, the company, in its first foray into a family-friendly show, absolutely achieves that, for a myriad of different reasons.
The stage is set before the play begins by simple lightbulbs hanging from overhead, lilting French music playing and a backlit sheet behind the playing space where every now and then we see a figure engaged in almost a dance, but with movement that’s a little more abstract and undefined.
The actors too, are magical. At the center of the action of course is the Prince, played by McKenzie Steele Foster. It’s funny, because right at the beginning, being the control freak that I am, I found the Prince quite irritating. The Pilot is stranded, right, and trying to fix his plane, and the Prince keeps turning up out of nowhere, asking lots of questions, not answering any questions, and then disappearing. Not really conducive to assisting the Aviator out of the desert. But the purpose of the Prince is to unlock a sense of wonder in those he encounters, and due to Foster’s performance, after about three minutes, I was totally mesmerized by the “little man.” Foster’s characterization is understated and much of the guileless charm that emanates from her seems to be coming from inside. But one sees the other characters that are in her orbit slowly drop their guards and become attached to the Prince.
Alex Ungerman, who is also a producer at Sackerson, plays the Aviator, and this trajectory is most evident with his character, as the Prince softens his rough and irritable edges and reinstates his sense of wonder.
The Prince also encounters a rose and a snake, played by Amy Ware, and various other characters including a wily fox portrayed by the ever-versatile Shawn Francis Saunders. The company recently took part in a workshop run by Frantic Assembly, which is a super-progressive theatre company that originated in Swansea, Wales. Its workshops are active explorations of the Frantic method of devising, which is about empowering people to be better at making theatre from a physical starting point. You really have to see the production to appreciate what the method added to it, but the results of the workshop combined with choreography by Graham Brown, create a way of moving that basically cuts straight through one’s rational mind to the heart; in other words, embodying the lesson of “The Little Prince,” that one sees clearly only with the heart. This method was most clear in the scene between the Prince and the fox, who essentially tame each other. Because scenes like this evoke emotion rather than rational thought, it follows that each audience member will have individual feelings about what the key messages of the story are, but for me, it’s a tale of friendship but also of loneliness, and how loss must follow love. The Little Prince must have been a Buddhist, I think.
The production elements of the show are also gorgeous, and enhance the story without getting in its way. The live cello music by Brooke Bolick is ethereal, needling at our emotions without becoming cloying or overdone.
I also really admire Dave Mortensen’s direction of the piece; he’s a founding producer at Sackerson. One usually thinks of a director’s purpose as locking down the production elements and knitting them all together. And the latter, he does, but somehow what his direction achieves, and I’m not sure how he did this, is setting the piece free and letting it fly.
So, where going in to the evening I was afraid the production wouldn’t be as sensational as what my imagination conjured up when I read the book as a little girl, what actually happened was that it somehow became more magical, and at the same time, more excruciatingly sad and tender. The final image of the Prince as a shadow simultaneously mends and breaks your heart.
“The Little Prince” runs Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. through Dec. 23 at The Art Factory, 211 W. 2100 South, Salt Lake City. Tickets are $10-$17 online from www.sackerson.org or $20 at the door.