Pity the children’s show, one of the theater’s toughest acts. Successful theater for young people has to appeal to kids, of course. But let’s face it: No kid buys her own ticket. The children’s show lives or dies on the whim of adults.
It’s a difficult balancing act. Kids want emotional clarity. Adults prefer emotional complexity. When done right, shows like “The Little Prince,” on stage at QC Theatre Workshop, show the beauty of that balancing.
Written by Aaron Randolph III, the Davenport actor-playwright who also serves as the Workshop’s artistic director, “The Little Prince” is a new stage adaptation of the classic French novella.
Randolph plays Aviator, a cargo pilot whose plane crash lands in the Sahara Desert. Stranded without help, Aviator gets to work repairing his broken plane when he is visited inexplicably by the Little Prince, performed by puppeteer Daniel Rairdin-Hale. The character is an orange-haired little boy who is exploring planet Earth on an adventure through the cosmos.
Their relationship gets off to a rocky start. Aviator is an archetypal adult: stern, solitary, workaholic and anxious to return home. The Little Prince is his opposite: carefree, naive, silly and content just watching the sunset. While Aviator frets away fixing his shambles of a plane, Little Prince pesters him with questions, jokes and stories about his intergalactic travels.
These extra-worldly stories bring to the stage a colorful cast of characters, played by a terrific Amelia Fischer, who bring to life the traits that keep Aviator out of touch with his inner kid. A greedy businessman highlights Aviator’s fixation on materialism, a delusional monarch shows the pain of worrying over what can’t be changed, an obsessive geographer reveals Aviator’s worthless priorities.
In these surrealist scenes, the show hits the golden mean. Kids laugh and cower before the larger-than-life characters while adults tune into the larger metaphors of growing up.
At 70 minutes, the show zips by at jet speed. This means everything in children’s theater, where the pace is paramount and attention spans are fleeting. Randolph understands childhood’s impatience as well as its tempo. The Little Prince departs the stage almost as quickly as he arrives.
Fischer, who portrays some seven characters, with varying masks and outfits and wigs, never appears for more than a few minutes at a time. Aviator himself, who’s on stage for the lion’s share of the show, has only a couple of monologues, to open and close the production. Soliloquies might please Shakespeareans, but they don’t please children.
The show’s moral, if it can be reduced to one, is the value of presence. Aviator is a man whose life and livelihood center on futurity. He makes money so he can enjoy himself when he retires, he tells the Little Prince. He works and he works and he works, but never does he seem to enjoy the work or its fruits.
In the way that little kids cannot conceive of a future beyond the dessert after dinner, the Little Prince forces Aviator to confront the now. That’s bittersweet, as the present is lovely and short-lived. As Aviator wonders: Why have friends if they will one day say goodbye? Why love at all if warm feelings will only flit away?
The show has thoughtful ideas, but it neither panders nor preaches. The answers to these tricky questions seem to be this:enjoy, and remember. And for a brisk hour, QC Theatre Workshop gives you a lot to keep in mind.
"The Little Prince" is on stage through May 19, at 1730 Wilkes Ave., Davenport. Tickets are available at qctheatreworkshop.org/current-show.