Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
With so many of us gravitating to the story, in so many languages and such a range of media, shouldn't it be a simple thing to answer the question: "What is it about?" Yet, like a Rorschach test, this tender-hearted tale of an aviator stranded when his engine fails over the Sahara Desert with enough water to survive for only eight days, and a wide-eyed, truth-seeking young prince who has travelled to Earth from a distant planet seems to reflect whatever feelings or ideas the reader (or listener or viewer) brings to the occasion.
One such occasion is the current mounting of Rick Cummins and the late John Scoullar's stage play The Little Prince, now on the McGuire Proscenium Stage at the Guthrie. The production is directed by Dominique Serrand, co-artistic director of The Moving Company and co-founder and co-artistic director of the much-missed Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Both companies' work uses minimalist staging that depends on actors' expression of both action and emotions through dexterous physicality, heavily laden with whimsy, and narratives that are open to interpretation. These attributes fit The Little Prince to a tee. In fact, Jeune Lune mounted its own staging in 2005.
Serrand's past experience and new insights into the piece; actors Steven Epp (magnificent as the Aviator), Reed Northrup (a talent new to the Twin Cities, and a revelation as the Little Prince), and Nathan Keepers (wonderful as a King, a Snake, and a Fox); strong support from Catherine Young (as a Rose, a Businessman and a Geographer) and from Wariboko Semenitari as a Conceited Man and a Lamplighter; wondrously inventive costumes and puppets (in several cases, it's hard to separate the two) designed by Olivera Gajic that allow enable all of those characters to spring to life; Yi Zhao's evocative lighting design; and a luscious soundscape created by Sinan Refik Zafar meld into a Little Prince that is beautiful to behold, thoroughly engaging, and tantalizingly open to interpretation.
Spurred by a suggestion from his publisher's wife that he write a book for children, there is no doubt that, while it presents a childlike world view that is fanciful, Saint-Exupéry meant The Little Prince to be an allegory for adult readers as well. It was written mainly in New York, while the author was in exile from Nazi occupation of his beloved France, and it certainly captures a sense of impending loss and a search for answers to the most existential of questions.
It opens with the aviator as a child, finding that adults cannot understand his drawing of a boa constrictor that had eaten an elephant, a perfect representation if one had the imagination to see it as such, and not, as all adults interpreted it, as a hat. With that he gives up all confidence in adults. He carries a childlike search for meaning into his love for flight and career as an aviator. When his plane crashes on the Sahara a thousand miles from human habitation (paralleling a true incident in 1935 wherein Saint-Exupéry and his navigator survived a crash in the Sahara and came close to perishing of thirst before being rescued), he feels totally alone until he encounters the Little Prince, an odd but wholly agreeable boy garbed in a translucent blue tunic that makes him appear quite ethereal. The Little Prince tells his story, of living on a tiny planet where he fell in love with a beautiful Rose, leaves the planet when he perceives the Rose does not fully return his love.
He visits six other planets and on each he meets an inhabitant whose peculiarity satirizes some aspect of western society. The last of these, a geographer who catalogues places without ever seeing any of them for himself, suggests he visits Earth. There the Little Prince has more strange encounters, notably with a Snake, who tells the boy he can help him to return to his planet when he wishes to, and a Fox who teaches a great lesson to the Little Prince: how one being tames another, thereby making the one tamed special above all others, in an exquisitely rendered scene. The Fox also advises the Little Prince: What is most important is not visible to the eye, that "One sees clearly only with the heart." Eight days later, the Little Prince's story is told. Both the boy and the Aviator are near death from thirst as they ponder what to do next, leading to a poignant end.
Scholars have considered the characters and settings in the novel as representative of different aspects of Saint-Exupéry's life, such as the Rose representing the author's wife Consuela, with whom he had a tempestuous relationship, or the uprooting of baobab trees lest they overwhelm all other life on his tiny home planet as a metaphor for underground action against the Nazis. Whether or not such links to the author's life were intended, the experiences the Little Prince has with each of the characters he meets, the Aviator's embrace of a life that holds firmly to imagination and child-like longings, rather than join the adult world, and the manner in which both characters resolve their existential dilemma leave an abundance of space for interpretation.
This does not negate the comical and fanciful aspects of the narrative that certainly have appeal for children, but does make this a potent theatrical work for adult audiences, graced with first-rate performances. As sheer stagecraft, the production is a great success in all regards but its set. Designed by Rachel Hauck, it resembles a sort of studio with a work bench, cabinets and shelves laden with props. This serves as a reminder that the story is being constructed within the frame of a work of art, undermining a total immersion into the world of the Aviator and the Little Prince. A backdrop that suggested undulating Saharan sand dunes and starry skies may have given the tale more anchoring. On the other hand, the set underscores the notion that the play, like the book, and like our own perception of what it all means, calls for exercise of our imagination, which in itself is a commendable precept.
Whether one goes to The Little Prince to enjoy delightful storytelling overflowing with imagination, to learn more about the enigmatic author, Saint-Exupéry, or to glean new ways of viewing the perplexing human condition we all must muddle through–and it is certainly possible to embrace all three of these–The Little Prince is a winning show, and highly recommended.
The Little Prince runs through February 5, 2023, at the Guthrie Theater's McGuire Proscenium, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $31.00 to $79.00. Seniors (65+), college students (with ID) - $3.00 - $6.00 off per ticket. Public rush line for unsold seats 15 - 30 minutes before performance, up to four tickets: $20.00 on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday evenings; $25.00 on weekend matinees, Friday and Saturday evenings. For tickets call 612-377-2224 or visit GuthrieTheater.org.
Playwrights: Rick Cummins and John Scoullar, based on the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; ; Director: Dominique Serrand; Scenic Design: Rachel Hauck; Costume and Puppet Design: Olivera Gajic; Lighting Design: Yi Zhao; Sound Design/Composer: Sinan Refik Zafar; Movement Director: Kimberly Richardson; Fight Director: Aaron Preusse; Dramaturg: Carla Steen; Voice Coach: Mira Kehoe; Resident Casting: Jennifer Liestman; NYC Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Stage Manager: Lori Lundquist; Assistant Stage Manager: Laura Topham; Assistant Director: Cara Phipps
Cast: Steven Epp (Aviator), Nathan Keepers (King/Snake/Fox), Reed Northrup (Little Prince), Wariboko Semenitari (Conceited Man/Lamplighter/Puppeteer), Catherine Young (Rose/Businessman/Geographer/Puppeteer).