The Phantom Tollbooth – Theatre Review: Childsplay, Tempe Center for the Arts, Tempe

When he’s out of school, he wants to be in, and when he’s in school, he wants to be out. And even though there are no scenes in the classroom, what happens to Milo is all about letters, words, numbers, and education in general. Sound familiar? Then you know the magical story of The Phantom Tollbooth. And if you do but your child doesn’t, then this is what needs to be done. Get to Childsplay at Tempe Center of the Arts before October 15. If reading and finding the value of numbers is yet to be high on the list of your child’s priorities, then the tale of Milo could well be the inspiration he or she was looking for.

Beginning its new 2017-2018 Storybook Season for Families with an adaptation of Norton Juster’s 1961 children’s fantasy adventure, The Phantom Tollbooth could not be more apt a season opener for Childsplay. Incorporating themes that praise the importance of education and the ability to face problems with lessons learned is only half of it. How certain things in life that should never be taken for granted, like the appreciation of sounds, the beauty of words, and the fun of having an active mind that can solve puzzles, is the other half.

Performed by a cast of five, but with characters that could fill the stage from side to side, Milo’s tale is told at a brisk sixty minutes. It engages from the moment the unengaged young boy arrives home after yet another boring day at school. According to Milo (Rudy Ramirez), learning is the greatest waste of time of all. But things are about to change. The boy discovers a large, mysterious package in his room, left by persons unknown. With a tag that reads: For Milo Who Has Plenty Of Time, Young Milo tears it open and finds… a tollbooth, complete with a map, instructions, and a book of rules that are not meant to be bent or broken. After picking a random destination from the map, in this case, the city of Dictionopolis, Milo jumps into one of his toy cars, drives by the tollbooth, and enters a world of imagination that for him becomes all too real.

Originally written as a play in two acts by Susan Nanus and intended for a cast of fifteen, then re-shaped for Childsplay, this sixty minute plus adventure performed with no intermission is a generally faithful adaptation of Juster’s novel, incorporating most of the characters and inventive wordplay from the book that Milo encounters on his journey, with just the mildest of tweaking required for the stage. But that’s just the groundwork.

If you read the full Nanus adaptation, in print it feels too long and not altogether an appealing read; there’s a tendency to get bogged down in the details – an irony when you consider that its aim is to do the exact opposite. As if aware of the play’s original shortcomings, Childsplay approaches the whole thing from a different and far more entertaining angle. Milo may be real, but those characters he meets along the way, like The Whether Man, the Spelling Bee, and the Humbug, are mostly puppets, wonderfully designed by Rebecca Akins and voiced and operated by the four supporting cast members dressed in black, Kate Haas, Tony Latham, Debra K. Stevens and Micah Jondel DeShazer.

In addition to operating the flexible and fully believable puppets, the cast don Akin’s cleverly designed masks and costumes and become the characters themselves. Thus, with a hat, fluffy ears, a tail and a large clock hanging around his neck, DeShazer becomes Tock the Watchdog whose job it is to stop others wasting time, Haas with curly wig, a fat nose and a wand is the Mathemagician, and with feathery wings, a beak and an overall crow-like appearance, Stevens is a villainous Word Snatcher.

The wonderful thing about those puppets such as the Whether Man and the Humbug is that even though we see the puppeteers on full view, there’s always an illusion of reality where you willingly surrender to the belief that it’s the puppets doing the walking and the talking, and no one else. Equate the theatre with film and think back to the stop-motion movements of those classic Ray Harryhausen creatures from the days of films like Jason and the Argonauts. We could see they were false, yet disbelief was always suspended. Unlike the smooth, life-like computer generated imagery of Jurassic Park where, impressive as it is, the effects do all the work for you, Harryhausen’s puppets inspired imagination, and as a consequence, they were much more fun and even magical to watch. And so it is with Akin’s beautifully designed creations; they’re clearly not real, but like the play itself, they inspire the mind, and the imagined becomes the reality.

Milo’s story is practically tailor-made for the themes and mission that Childsplay aims to achieve. The imagination and wonder of childhood is there in Milo’s escapade. And if, as the theatre’s mission statement declares, these are the keys to a child’s future, then with The Phantom Tollbooth, Childsplay has once again unlocked the doors. At the fade out, prior to the cast taking their bows, a pre-schooler seated behind me stated loudly to his mom, “That was great!” With an unsolicited endorsement like that, who needs a review?

Pictures Courtesy of Tim Trumble

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