When taking a child to the theatre for the first time, parents should chose wisely. With the right production, the experience can be magical, even inspiring, revealing a new and previously unimaginable world of story-telling on a level many adults have either forgotten or perhaps can no longer imagine. Childsplay, the non-profit, professional theatre company, knows this and has one aim. To quote the Childsplay mission statement, the company wants to instill an enduring awe, love and respect for the medium. Mission accomplished.
Childsplay was founded in 1977 and involves itself not only in delivering quality, professional productions and keeping its ever-revolving door of new audiences entertained, but also in the teaching of the subject. The staff and performers travel; they teach, they take young audiences behind the scenes, they go to schools, and in 2007, the company launched its first national tour, performing for twenty-four states in fourteen weeks.
The opening production of the 38th season began this weekend at the wonderful Tempe Center for the Arts with the return of the perennial favorite, Charlotte’s Web. Adapted from the E.B. White book by playwright Joseph Robinette, in many respects, Charlotte’s Web is the ideal play to begin the season, particularly if it’s your child’s first trip to the theatre. It incorporates several of those special qualities in story-telling that when done well can’t fail to inspire a sense of wonder in a child’s mind – humor, mystery, a theme of friendship and unconditional love, a young girl who talks to animals and adults who can’t.
Robinette’s thorough and faithful adaptation captures every element that made E.B. White’s classic so popular, but it’s what Childsplay does with the show that makes it come alive. This is a dedicated cast, many of whom adult theatre-goers have seen in several productions in professional theatres throughout the valley before.
Kate Haas is a delightful Fern whose childlike and infectious exuberance is totally convincing as the eight-year-old farm girl who rescues the famous baby piglet from slaughter and names him Wilbur. “A perfect name for a perfect pig,” Fern states. Kyle Sorrell’s Wilbur nicely captures that playful sense of innocence and joy of what it’s like to discover new things and new friends. When he realizes what his eventual fate might be and says, “A good life is better than living a long life,” Sorrell’s sincere delivery makes you believe every word.
The support from the rest of the cast is first class, many of whom pull double-duty as either a narrator or several of the adult characters. Katie McFadzen, so good in the recent Actors Theatre production of Good People, has fun as Goose. The arrival of her seven new born goslings as Katie leads them on stage for the first time will charm every child in the theatre. Jon Gentry’s Templeton, the greedy rat with the insatiable appetite, has a sly and snarky manner to him that draws some of the production’s biggest laughs. When handed an old, decaying piece of fruit he sniffs it and says, “In day or two it will be just right.” Yolanda London’s no-nonsense though friendly Sheep talks in a clear and deliberate manner that makes everything she says sound like a declaration. “I do not play with pigs!” she declares, making sure that Wilbur keeps at arm’s length at all times. Danny Karapetian effectively changes from the practical and friendly farmer, Homer Zuckerman, to the large pig Uncle, Wilbur’s rival for the coveted blue ribbon at the county fair, while Drew Swaine as Avery actually manages to give the smaller, supporting character of Fern’s brother a bigger impact on stage than the character makes in E.B. White’s book.
But it’s Debra K. Stevens as one of the nation’s most beloved characters, Charlotte the spider who spins those famous words on her web that children will remember. When Charlotte makes her first entrance into the barn at night and climbs the ladder to her sparkling web overlooking the enclosure as Wilbur sleeps, you hold your breath. There’s a sense of wondrous expectation to the moment, as if something truly magical is about to begin.
Under Anthony Runfola’s assured and unfussy direction and supported by a production team that would make any theatre proud – William H. Symington V’s barnyard design is both simple yet hugely effective and eye-catching – Charlotte’s Web succeeds in opening that world of wonder that will hopefully inspire a child to seek out more.
With such a vibrant, theatrical community on our doorstep, watching Childsplay’s opening production truly completes the circle. Think about it. Here we have an outstanding production performed by adult professionals who will hopefully inspire in a new generation of theatre-goers a love of quality theatre, many of whom as they grow older may go on to audition for Valley Youth Theatre and later maybe Spotlight Youth Theatre. Perhaps they may even take things further and make theatre their career where, if they’re lucky, they’ll get to work with many of the same performers they saw at Childsplay.
The next production in Childsplay’s season is The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, which premiere’s October 19. Personally speaking, that’s too long to wait.
For more information regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for Childsplay’s official website.