Superior Cast Elevates Charlotte's Web
Also see Bob's review of The Tangled Skirt
The principal advantages that the stage play Charlotte's Web has over the two motion picture adaptations (one animated, the second live action) are personal contact and interaction with live performers, and the intimate display of craft that children's and/or family theatre at its best provides.
The Arable sow gives birth to a litter of piglets and, when he discovers an unlikely to survive runt among them, Mr. Arable determines to kill him. The 8-year-old Arable daughter Fern begs her father to allow him to live. He gives him to her as a pet. She names him Wilbur. Wilbur grows strong quickly and is sold to her uncle Mr. Zuckerman. Although Fern visits Wilbur when she can, Wilbur misses her attentions and is lonely. However, he meets the delicate spider, Charlotte, who becomes his friend and companion.
Other farm animals, a goose and a gander, a lamb and a sheep, and the foraging rat Templeton live in the barn and become friendly with Wilbur, but they slowly let him know that he will shortly be killed and eaten. In order to save Wilbur, Charlotte labors to write words in her web over Wilbur's head so that he will become famous and be spared. Her first effort is "some pig." Her efforts are successful, and Wilbur is entered in the county fair. After bringing forth her egg sac, Charlotte at the end of her life cycle, uses her little remaining energy to spin out a last word for Wilbur, "humble." Wilbur returns Charlotte's eggs to her uncle's farm. After hatching, most of the baby spiders scatter to the winds, but three remain with Wilbur who shares his love of their mother with them.
The story begins in Story Theatre style with the actors portraying Fern's parents narrating played-out events of Wilbur's birth and early survival. What begins as solidly staged, professionally sharp children's theatre develops into moving, meaningful family theatre as life lessons are enfolded in E.B. White's "radiant" (one of the words that Charlotte weaves for Wilbur) fable.
Ten actors play all the roles, several doubling or tripling in human and animal roles. Each actor when playing animals "wears" large, two-part puppets with the body often around a lower arm and the more supple head covering the hand, as well as additional costuming elements. Particularly diverting is the giant, boastful pig "Uncle" which is held by two actors including John Ahlin who voices the role.
John Ahlin is particularly diverting as the pig "Uncle" and Fern's uncle, Mr. Zuckerman. Ahlin displays a delightful larger than life personality which perfectly fits the high-spirited production. Garrett Neergaard employs a distinctive, porcine-like drawl and matching body movement to delight as Wilbur. Doug O'Hara is a wittily aggressive, dynamically athletic Templeton. Aysan Celik is a sinuously athletic and quietly moving Charlotte. The entire cast bring enthusiasm, humor and clarity to each and every role.
David P. Gordon's large, brightly lit set, largely constructed from floor to ceiling of large wooden boards, makes for an impressively solid barn and opens into an impressive playing area for the county fair.
Matt Pfeiffer's robust direction maximizes the impact of the material. Particularly delightful to the children are the frequent forays throughout the auditorium by cast members who directly speak to and engage them. The delighted squeals of the youngsters to the aggressive humor displayed during these forays provide indisputable testimony to the solid success of Pfeiffer's tactics.
Finally, after the completion of the play itself, the actors introduce themselves to the audience and accept questions from the audience about the play, the production and their performance. The youngsters are tremendously enthusiastic about the opportunity to participate in this phase of the presentation, and the Two River company delight by matching their enthusiasm and treating their questioners with delighted respect.
The Two River Theatre Company and Charlotte's Web are thoroughly delighting kids this holiday season.
Charlotte's Web continues performances (matinees and/or evenings daily on an irregular schedule - no perfs. 12/20, 12/24, 25, 31 and 1/1) through January 2, 2011, at the Two River Theatre Company (Rechnitz Theatre), 21 Bridge Street, Red Bank, NJ 07701. Box Office: 732-345-1400; online: www.trtc.org.
Charlotte's Web adapted by Joseph Robinette from the book by E.B. White; directed by Matt Pfeiffer