Flora & Ulysses – Theatre Review: Childsplay, Tempe Center for the Arts, Tempe

It all began with a perky curmudgeon. That’s how author of children’s fiction, Kate DiCamillo once described herself as a child; a little girl who viewed the world with curiosity and just a little bit of cynicism. Years later, that self-description would become the basis of her ten year-old character, Flora Belle Buckman, the girl with the glasses who spent most of her time reading comic books while trying to come to terms with her parents’ divorce. DiCamillo never wore glasses; that came with the illustrations, but it’s her, all the same.

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures is the story of self-proclaimed cynic, Flora, and a squirrel named Uylysses who just happens to have superpowers, written by DiCamillio, with illustrations by K.G. Campbell. It went on to win the Newbery Medal in 2014, an award given to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. It’s also the book upon which writer John Glore has adapted for the stage, and now you can see the whole madcap whirl of an adventure presented by Childsplay at Tempe Center for the Arts, performing now in Tempe until Sunday, May 20.

Flora & Ulysses begins with a single sentence projected on a screen. “It all began with a vacuum cleaner...” And so it does. Once that screen rises on Jeff Thomson’s comic book, fun house set design, we see that Flora’s neighbor Tootie (Savannah Alfred) has just received a vacuum cleaner from her husband. It’s a powerful cleaner called a Ulysses 2000X, and in keeping with the overall, off-center nature of the whole affair, she’s outside in the yard vacuuming her lawn, just to test things. But she accidentally vacuums a hungry squirrel (operated by Tommy Strawser, who also narrates), sucking it up into the cleaner’s inner workings. That’s when Flora (Kaleena Newman) jumps to the rescue.

Having witnessed the event from her bedroom window, Flora runs from her house to help Tootie pull the poor creature out of the cleaner, which she does. She even performs mouth-to-mouth when the unconscious squirrel emerges, and helps breathe new life into the little animal. But something odd occurs, and it’s really odd; the squirrel lifts the oversized vacuum cleaner with his paw. Yes, he’s suddenly acquired superpowers, just like the characters Flora reads about in her comic books. Besides lifting heavy objects, he can also understand English, type, write poetry, and strangest of all, he can fly. Flora names him Ulysses, after the cleaner (though it could just as easily be from Greek mythology), and takes him into her house. And that’s where all the unusual, bizarre, oddball events with its small array of eccentric characters really begins.

When author DiCamillo submitted her work for publication, it was all in prose. It was her publisher who suggested that each time Ulysses exhibited his superpowers, the book should suddenly become a graphic novel, a comic book, just as Flora would read. Thus, when characters on stage have an inner thought, a dialog bubble is projected, as when Flora is asked something. She ponders, “A good question,” and the words appear above her head, or when we read the thoughts of Ulysses when he thinks to himself, “I’m really, really hungry.”

In addition to good neighbor Tootie, Flora’s misadventures with Ulysses includes further conflicts with her mother, a romance novelist named Phylliss (a wonderfully broad Katie McFadzen), her sad-sack father, George (Louis Farber, whose likable, friendly nature gets better with every new Valley performance), Tootie’s young nephew, the temporarily blind William (Ricco Machado-Torres, whose natural, bright smile is a perfect contrast on his face to the dark glasses he wears), and Dr. Meescham (an uproarious Debra K. Stevens, whose heavy European accent and its delivery is as funny as the stories she tells Flora of her childhood).

Incorporating such themes as courage, love, divorce, separation, isolation, and language, there’s no doubt, Flora & Ulysses is a genuinely odd, flaky, but thoroughly engaging story. It’s also touching, as when Flora longingly imagines her absent father visiting her in her bedroom as she falls asleep, while dad points out that he’s not really there. “I’m currently asleep in my lonely little apartment across the other side of town,” he explains.

But it’s also the funniest, laugh-out-loud Childsplay production of its current 2017-18 season, full of wonderfully creative touches from director Dwayne Hartford, such as hearing a brief moment of Batman’s TV whirling, scene-changing theme as Flora’s favorite expression, Holy Bagumba! is projected, or the priceless look on mom’s face when she suddenly hears the clickety-clack of the squirrel at her typewriter, and asks everyone around her with a look of total, comic incredulity, “Who’s typing?”

Flora & Ulysses is a book for children, but it’s a play for everyone. It’s also the final production from Childsplay performed at its current home, Tempe Center for the Arts. Beginning next season, the jewel in the valley’s crown for family entertainment loads the truck and moves across the valley to Phoenix for its new home at Herberger Theater Center. But before that happens, see Flora & Ulysses in Tempe, and savor the moment during the final seconds when you’ll hear your child gasp. Look to the skies; they’ll believe Flora’s Ulysses can really fly.

Flora & Ulysses continues at Tempe Center for the Arts until Sunday, May 20

Pictures courtesy of Tim Trumble

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