Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince is an adult tale about how life should be lived, couched in the language of a bedtime children’s story. Its lessons are many: That only the heart sees truly, that even beautiful souls (or “roses”) need a few thorns for their own self-protection, that a life of selfish professionalism is a perversion of the human spirit. In the fine freeFall Theatre production currently playing in St. Pete, these themes are there for the having (with just a little audience effort), and there’s much more besides, about the loss of childhood ingenuity, the possibility of an afterlife, and the responsibility one has to the persons one has “tamed” — that is, made companionable. Because this adaptation (by Rick Cummins and John Scouliar) is so faithful to Saint-Exupéry’s original novella, the freeFall version works as a wonderful introduction to a modern parable that everyone should know — along with Gulliver’s Travels, The Wizard of Oz, and The Lord of the Rings. And because the freeFall production is so charming and inventive, even kids (who won’t understand a good two-thirds of the allegory) will enjoy themselves. The production is a little too simple at times and can feel — occasionally — tedious, but for the most part this is an enchanting and welcome substitute for the usual holiday Dickens, Tchaikovsky, Sedaris. And aren’t you curious as to why a little boy from a distant asteroid is well-known in 250 languages?
That boy is persuasively played by fifth grader Will Garrabrant at freeFall, and though he doesn’t look at all like the urchin painted by Saint-Exupéry and depicted on the book’s famous cover, he’ll make you forget that other portrayal within minutes of the play’s opening. Young as he is, Garrabrant is a confident performer, and when he tells us that he hails from a far rock in the sky, we have no reason to dispute it. As the Aviator who crashes in the Sahara and discovers the diminutive interplanetary commuter, Michael David is near-perfect: honest, decent, anxious about how he’s ever going to get home, and increasingly loyal to his little fellow-expatriate. (It doesn’t hurt to know that pilot/author Saint-Exupéry himself once crashed in the African desert, or that his tumultuous relationship with his Salvadorean wife Consuelo is probably the inspiration for the Prince’s agon with/love for his asteroid’s Rose.) As for the three other performers, Trenell Mooring is delightful as Rose and Snake and Fox (the last being the wisest), and Logan Wolfe is very funny as several Men encountered by the Prince during his remembered travels — among them a vain fop, a fanatical businessman, and an all-too-dry geographer. I wasn’t quite as satisfied with Carolina Esparza’s interpretive dancing, though — it seemed to belong to a different narrative, one more visceral, and perhaps Spanish. But Eric Davis’s directing is sure-handed and efficient (the play only takes 85 minutes), and his costume design is superb, from the Aviator’s uniform to the illuminated stars on the shoulders of the Prince’s long coat. Nickolas Mathis’s set is mostly a bare stage with a solid back and some moving panels through which characters, furniture, and props come and go, but those props include well-made puppets, and the backdrop also acts as a screen on which key drawings from the novella are projected.
The most famous lines from Saint-Exupéry’s tale are surely “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” This might also be considered the operating premise of the freeFall production: with just a few actors, a few props and puppets (to represent the Aviator’s downed plane, a talking Fox, all roses that aren’t Rose) we’re encouraged to see what’s not in front of us: the self-analysis of an artist in exile from his sometimes thorny marriage, burdened by the egotism and materialism around him, challenged to find in himself the wise child who can guide him back to a remembered happiness. This is the subtext of Saint-Exupéry’s book and it’s all there in the freeFall adaptation, along with topnotch acting and directing. If you’ve never read the book (or never had it read to you by canny, Continentally-inclined parents), you’ll enjoy this first encounter. If you’re a longtime fan, you’ll take pleasure in the fidelity with which the Prince and the Aviator are depicted. In either case, you’ll want to add The Little Prince to your holiday round – say, in lieu of your 37th viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life.
And why shouldn’t you redecorate your asteroid this season?