by Christine Sarkes
The Little Prince at the Guthrie Theater is a sweet, sometimes trippy, delightfully heartfelt interpretation of the well-loved French language novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. One cannot review the play without first understanding the history and impact Saint-Exupéry’s book has had on generations of readers. Often mistaken as a children’s book, The Little Prince offers adults and children alike profound insight into the nature and loss of childhood innocence, love, death, greed, power and the general hypocrisies that govern ‘grown-up’ life. The book has sold an estimated 140 million copies worldwide since 1943 (making it one of the best-selling in history), has been translated into over 500 languages and dialects, and adapted to numerous art forms and media. Introduced to this reviewer as college French course assignment, the book’s philosophy and observations on the human condition have remained a personal touchstone many decades later. Among the lines most special to me: “All grown-ups were once children…but only few of them remember it,” “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye,” and “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”
The Guthrie’s production comes from composer Rick Cummins and playwright/lyricist John Scoullar, who have adapted it into two musicals and two plays. The Guthrie appropriately chose Paris native and former Co-Artistic Director, Co-Founder of Theatre de la Jeune Lune, Dominique Serrand, to direct and cast his former Co-Artistic Director/Actor Steven Epps in the role of the Aviator. Rounding out the excellent cast were Reed Northrup (Little Prince), Nathan Keepers (King/Snake/Fox), Wariboko Semenitari (Conceited Man, Lamplighter/Puppeteer) and Catherine Young (Rose, Businessman/Geographer/Puppeteer). Scenic Designer Rachel Hauck deserves special praise for envisioning the cleverly multipurpose set from a story largely taking place in an empty dessert. Costume and Puppet Designer Olivera Gajic has done an amazing job in creating the unusual costumes/puppets befitting the strange and whimsical characters interacting with the Little Prince. The staging of these interactions makes use of the height, depth, lighting and hidden corners of the set, adding to the mystery and unexpected wonder of the Aviator and Little Prince’s worlds and their relationship to each other.
The plot is a simple one: after his plane crashes in the Sahara, a pilot must survive on little water to repair his plane, when a curious and ethereal little prince appears to demand that the pilot draw him a sheep to take back to his home planet. From the Guthrie’s synopsis: “Over the course of a week, the prince tells the pilot tales of his intergalactic travels to various planets, Earth included. Each story sheds new light on their philosophical questions until the two unlikely companions find the answers — and their lives — hanging in the balance.” The Little Prince, appearing only at sunset, shares his most important lessons while various planetary characters appear onstage to engage with him. Meanwhile, both the Aviator and Little Prince struggle to find a way home. The most profound of the relationships is the Little Prince with his Rose, the flower he loves and struggles to protect and understand. The actors could not be more perfectly cast: Northrup has the childlike demeanor, movement and voice to capture the essence of the Little Prince. Epps as the Aviator conveys the gravitas and humility of a man struggling to survive and to understand what it means to be an adult, while preserving childlike wonder and wisdom. I cannot praise enough the versatility and talent of the remaining cast. They embody each of the distinctly unique characters with whimsy and physicality.
Watching the play amongst families with children, I wondered how to reconcile its pace and abstract philosophy with its suitability for young people. In fact, the Guthrie will not admit children under 5. In my opinion, middle-school age and above would be a good range. Younger children would likely be challenged by the themes and the play’s length (1 hour and 40 minutes without intermission). The Guthrie has admirably scheduled a ‘relaxed performance’ on Sunday, January 22 at 1 p.m. to accommodate patrons with sensory and vestibular sensitivities, anxiety, dementia, autism spectrum disorders, learning differences or challenges attending the theater. However, I found this quote (in a New York Herald Tribune review) by P.L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins, to be particularly relevant and astute: “The Little Prince will shine upon children with a sidewise gleam. It will strike them in some place that is not the mind and glow there until the time comes for them to comprehend it.” I would also urge anyone attending the play to read about the extraordinary life of Saint-Exupéry, a man whose difficult personal history and life-threatening adventures as an aviator and exiled writer seem to contradict the innocence and wonder of the world he created in The Little Prince.
The Little Prince, Dominique Serrand (Director), Rachel Hauck (Scenic Designer), Olivera Gajic (Costume and Puppet Designer), Yi Zhao (Lighting Designer), Sinan Refik Zafar (Sound Designer), Carla Steen (Resident Dramaturg), Mira Kehoe (Vocal Coach), Kimberly Richardson (Movement Director), Jennifer Liestman (Resident Casting Director), Lori Lundquist (Stage Manager), Laura Topham (Assistant Stage Manager), Cara Phipps (Assistant Director) and McCorkle Casting, Ltd. (NYC Casting Consultant). At the Guthrie Theater through February 5, 818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis. Tickets from $31 to $80. Rcommended for ages 8 and up; children under 5 are not admitted. Single and group tickets are on sale now through the Box Office at 612.377.2224 (single), 1.877.447.8243 (toll-free), 612.225.6244 (group) or online at guthrietheater.org.