“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly,” whispered the Fox to the Little Prince. “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
While the Fox’s words may ring true for the vast abyss of life, they certainly did not apply to the production of which he was a part. In the Cal Poly Theatre and Dance Department’s production of “The Little Prince,” all the essentials were both present and highly visible as the cast and set came together to provide an experience that was, at once, thematically lavish and refreshingly straightforward.
These traits were expected, though, considering the source material. The story originally took the form of an enormously popular 1943 novella by the French activist and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and it observes a crash-landed aviator and an otherworldly prince as they trade realizations about adulthood, empathy and friendship while stranded in an African desert. Each of these universal human struggles is reconciled by imaginative and even magical situations that are insightful, yet maintain childlike simplicity.
The struggle of adulthood served as the backbone of the story, and took on a multifaceted appearance. It was tackled far more deftly than fans of Peter Pan (of “I won’t grow up” fame) might hope. From beginning to end, the Little Prince (played by Miranda Ashland) and the Aviator (Jacob Corsaro) encountered representations of everything wrong with adults in the traditional sense.
In the opening scene, the Aviator recalls how adults in his life refused to understand his love for drawing. Later on, the Prince tells about the types of adults he met during his travels to other planets; a narrative played out with hilarity and absurdity by highly animated puppets. There’s the conceited man who wishes nothing more than to be admired; the businessman who’s too busy doing “important things” like counting his money and coming up with ways to make more, to appreciate the stars he claims to own; the geographer who is so set on his pretentious job title that he refuses to go out and discover the things he ought to be mapping.
The Prince seeks authenticity and innate value in an innocent, but persistent fashion, and Ashland portrayed the character perfectly by maintaining a look of youthful wonder when delivering her lines assertively.
“I play a lot of kid roles, but this was a lot different from your annoying, bratty 10-year-old kid,” Ashland said. “(The Prince) has all this wisdom and knowledge, but he’s very curious so I really had to balance that.”
That personality set the stage, so to speak, for an unbelievably adorable encounter with the top-hat-sporting Fox — a heartwarming character who wishes deeply to be tamed so that he can be understood and loved. “Aw”s and “oh em gee that was so cute”s echoed around Alex and Faye Spanos Theatre.
There was rarely time for reactions of this sort to last long, because “The Little Prince” zipped through time and space at an almost dizzying speed. The set design managed to match the pace of the story with its mostly stationary, spacey backdrop, exposed functional gears and human setpieces.
“There’s the celestial feel and the sense of the gears and how people are interconnected even if they’re from different planets,” said technical and lighting director Clint Bryson. “(I) had this blank canvas and got to paint pictures and ideas on top of it.”
Normally, having actors embody trees or wind appears slightly comical and elementary, but here it worked seamlessly, allowing the human characters to reach new destinations with ease.
The focal point of the set was a round projection screen that displayed what the Aviator drew on his notepad in real time. It hovered above the actors like a high-definition thought bubble, and truly highlighted the show’s emphasis on the value of imagination. The Aviator returned to his childhood thought process with the help of the Prince to access the beauty the world has to offer.
Beauty is fleeting, however. Memories of the things and people we love will eventually be all we have. That’s OK, according to the Little Prince in his tearful farewell to the Aviator.
The Prince quotes the Fox when he concedes, “It runs the risk of weeping a little.”
That’s how we know it was all worthwhile.