Charlotte’s Web

A child of the ‘80s, I prepared for Children’s Theatre Company’s  production of Charlotte’s Web by recalling the ‘70s animated movie. Templeton the rat rolling in fair food came to mind, and so too did Wilbur the runt prancing around the farm with a duckling on his snout. As the day came closer, I began singing “Lots in Common” during the work day, proving my street cred once and for all.

Yes, I know it was a novel first. No, I shouldn’t expect a live-action version of the movie. As a child, I delighted in Wilbur’s innocence. Like any young child, Wilbur struggled to come to terms with certain uncomfortable truths.  White’s dialogue is simple, unapologetic, and unsparing. Fern’s mother explains, for example, “ One of the pigs is a runt. It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it” (White).

Such language makes for tough adaptation, especially for an audience of children in 2013. The audience must understand the central tension of the play: Fern’s uncle’s dilemma of whether or not to kill Wilbur. While the adults are on the periphery of the story, their decisions create the conflict and later  (spoiler alert—who doesn’t know this story, anyway?) provide sweet relief when they turn in the pig’s favor. Of course, the relief is interrupted by grief at Charlotte’s passing and we are reminded of the inevitability of death, momentary reprieves notwithstanding. Oh—and a reminder—this is a play for children.

So Children’s Theatre Company has to figure out how to dramatize E.B. White’s blunt prose while maintaining Charlotte’s enigmatic charisma and keeping young audiences engaged. To be blunt myself, I don’t think this production lives up to the challenge. While the theater has an excellent core of adult actors, Joseph Robinette’s script does not give them much to do. Despite the opportunity to engage with this treasured story, this production keeps the characters (both animal and human) one-dimensional while minimizing any fear that Wilbur won’t survive.  Fear is what gives such pathos to movies like Bambi and stories like Wilbur’s, but the emotional center of Robinette’s script instead depends on Fern and Wilbur’s general likability. Emma Thvedt appropriately portrays Fern’s wide-eyed innocence, however she and Ethan Davenport (Wilbur) just don’t engage the audience enough to carry the production. That’s not their fault; again, they are not given much text or staging with which to engage us. Even Wilbur’s most playful moments feel flat and tame. Charlotte (Joanna Harmon) was beautiful to watch, although the gag of her web got a bit repetitive.

Emma Thvedt as Fern in Charlotte's Web. Photo by Dan Norman.

Emma Thvedt as Fern in Charlotte’s Web. Photo by Dan Norman.

The most engaging scenes were the farm animal scenes, where veteran actors like Reed Sigmund (Templeton) got a chance to play in the mud. Given the acting chops present in some of the adult actors, especially Sigmund and Audrey Anderson (Goose), I had to wonder about the choice to make Wilbur a child actor. I could just imagine a mature, well-trained, and versatile actor like Sigmund having such fun with the role!

Despite these glitches and some restlessness on the part of the young children around me, I think the majority of children in the audience enjoyed themselves. If you have a child who is eager to see this story told live, the production is worth a ticket. Otherwise wait for the many other excellent productions that are sure to come from this consistent theater company.

Charlotte’s Web by Joseph Robinette, based on the book by E.B. White. September 17-October 27th at Children’s Theatre Company, 2400 3rd Avenue South, Minneapolis. Tickets start at $32.  Tickets: (612) 874-0400.

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