Regional Reviews: Phoenix
DiCamillo's unusual and imaginative story centers on 10-year-old Flora, a self-proclaimed cynic who loves comic books and super heroes. Flora's parents are divorced and she lives with her self-obsessed romance novelist mother while her sad sack father George lives across town in an apartment. The plot begins when Flora saves the life of a squirrel, who was sucked into her neighbor's new indoor/outdoor vacuum cleaner, by giving it mouth to mouth resuscitation. When the squirrel comes to, Flora discovers that it now possesses the ability to fly as well as to communicate by typing out its thoughts. Flora calls the squirrel Ulysses, after the name of the vacuum cleaner, and takes it home with her. But when her mother sees the squirrel she hatches a plan to get rid of the nuisance for good. So, Flora enlists her father, along with her neighbor Tootie, Tootie's nephew William, and the crazy philosophy doctor who lives across the hall from her dad, to help her save Ulysses.
Adapted by John Glore, the stage version of Flora & Ulysses is well scripted with rich characters and a few fun twists and turns in the plot. While it's very funny, with several laugh out loud moments, it also smartly features several topics that are not often present in your traditional youth theatre show but that prove incredibly relevant to both children and adults. The show touches upon the impact of divorce and even includes a slightly frank and realistic talk about death when Flora's mother plots to get rid of Ulysses by hitting him over the head with a shovel. There is also a deep feeling of sadness and loneliness in the way Flora feels since her parents got divorced as well as the downtrodden way the show portrays her father. While those somewhat dark themes may make Flora & Ulysses seem a bit of a downer, they actually help flesh the show out, making it incredibly realistic and layered and instilling the upbeat parts with a natural warmth.
The cast is just about perfect and features several Childsplay regulars as well as a few faces relatively new to the company. Kaleena Newman is exceptional and appealing as the slightly strange but completely lovable and fearless Flora. Ulysses is portrayed by a puppet, designed beautifully by D. Daniel Hollingshead and brought to life by Tommy Strawser, who is incredibly endearing as the always hungry squirrel. Katie McFadzen and Louis Farber play Flora's parents and, while the characters are almost complete opposites, they are adept at creating nuanced individuals. With a keen sense of comic delivery, McFadzen is great as the focused and driven woman who gets flustered by Ulysses (her pronunciation of "squirrel" as if it had four syllables is hilarious), and Farber is exceptional in getting across the sadness that lingers inside this compassionate man. Childsplay favorite Debra K. Stevens is superb as the somewhat crazy but entirely lovable philosophy doctor next door. Savannah Alfred is charming and humorous as Tootie and, making his Childsplay debut, Ricco Machado-Torres is a gem as Tooties matter of fact nephew William who, like Flora, has also suffered a recent emotional experience that causes him to feel lonely.
Dwayne Hartford's direction beautifully balances the truthful moments in the script amongst the more humorous and fantasy sequences. Jeff Thomson's impressive and expansive set design features several large movable elements that rotate to become the various locations in the plot with the incorporation of some fun projections from Anthony Runfola that portray the thoughts of both Ulysses and Flora. In addition to the great puppet design for Ulysses, Hollingshead also created the fun and colorful costumes and wigs.
Childsplay continues to present plays that offer a wide range of topics that touch upon both comical and dramatic issues that impact children of all ages; its production of Flora & Ulysses, which is beautifully designed, well cast, and smartly directed, is no exception. While the plot may incorporate some serious themes and topics into a story of a young girl and a flying squirrel, that only results in a more realistic overall story when balanced with the humorous sequences and the witty and wacky characters.
Flora & Ulysses, through May 20th, 2018, at Childsplay, Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe AZ. Performances are on Saturdays at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. Tickets are on sale at www.childsplayaz.org or at the Tempe Center for the Arts Box Office 480-350-2822 (ext. 0)
Adapted by John Glore from the book by Kate DiCamillo