Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince has been an integral part of my thinking for a long, long time. It seems at first so simply written, so straightforwardly sentimental, that you hardly notice how deep and wise it is, but then scene after scene lingers in the imagination. For example, there's the Little Prince's admonition, as he bids farewell to the Aviator, to look up at the stars at night. They will speak, even fill the sky with laughter, the prince explains, because he himself will be living somewhere among them and tending to his lovely and recalcitrant Rose. As a 21-year-old, I would think of this as I traveled to New York by train from Philadelphia to meet the man I loved, thrilling to the joyous rhythm of the wheels on the track and feeling that, yes, Saint-Exupéry was right: New York was the most beautiful place in the world, because within its vast immensity, this extraordinary young man was moving through his days. And then there's the scene in which the Fox teaches the little prince how to tame him: "For me you're only a little boy just like a hundred thousand little boys. And I have no need of you. And you have no need of me, either. For you I'm only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, we'll need each other. You'll be the only boy in the world for me. I'll be the only fox in the world for you...." If there's a better description anywhere of the patience and attention love requires, I've never seen it.
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The Colorado Shakespeare Festival is presenting The Little Prince as a fable for both children and adults, though the story may be a little sophisticated for the former. The Aviator's plane goes down in the desert where, with his supply of water running out and fearing for his survival, he encounters a strange, golden-haired boy. He learns about the boy's home, an asteroid that boasts three volcanoes one extinct as well as a horde of troublesome baobab trees whose powerful roots threaten to tear the place apart, and a beautiful rose, with which the youngster is in love. The prince also spins satirical stories about the six planets he visited before earth, each ruled by a foolishly eccentric man; the idea that adults are inherently ridiculous and only children can see clearly is central to the author's worldview. There are many autobiographical elements to the plot, the festival program explains. Saint-Exupéry himself spent several hallucinatory days in the Sahara after a plane crash, where he saw desert roses and encountered the small desert foxes. The character of the Little Prince was inspired by his younger brother, Francois, who died of rheumatic fever.
Director Philip C. Sneed is to be commended for using an adaptation (by Rick Cummins and John Scoullar) that sticks closely to the original text. The spare, simple set, costumes and character groupings all refer clearly to Saint-Exupéry's own watercolor illustrations. The Aviator tells us at the beginning how his attempts to draw as a boy were thwarted by the incomprehension of adults — he thought he'd created a boa constrictor that had just swallowed an elephant; they saw only a hat — and the production focuses closely on the act of drawing throughout. The Aviator sketches the scenes the Prince describes, and we see the results on a screen. This makes for a dynamic illustration of the ways in which art and imagination shape reality.
The Little Prince
Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 14, University Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org.
Alastair Hennessy is a sweet little prince (he alternates in the role with Orion Pilger) and Tom Coiner a robust Aviator, though his French accent is intrusive. All the other characters have pretty exaggerated accents, too, but they work because these roles are so stylized. Emme Watkins's Rose is a charmer, and Jake Walker adds a lot of vitality and humor playing all the Men on the Planets. Passion Lyons as the snake and Tony Vo as the fox are particularly effective.
This production communicates much of the magic of the original. And that's saying a lot.