Freefall Theatre delivers an imaginative makeover of ‘The Little Prince’

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ST. PETERSBURG — Chances are you’ve read the book.

The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, has sold more than 150 million copies since being published in French in 1943; after Mao Zedong’s "Little Red Book" and the Bible, it trails only Don Quixote, A Tale of Two Cities and The Lord of the Rings. So it would seem as if a stage adaptation of the novella could hardly miss.

That would be a risky assumption. The story of a young prince from a tiny planet exploring other planets is equal parts parable and parody. Numerous characters appear, each inhabited by a single adult laboring under a myopic obsession. Its childlike perspective gives the story a supernatural lilt, balancing a critique of greed, vanity and countless soul-deadening habits that characterize adulthood and may even define it.

Freefall Theatre does its best to take nothing for granted in this one-act directed by artistic director Eric Davis (who also handled costumes and video and sound design). This is a clean and well acted production which does nothing to impede the epic original creation, adapted by Rick Cummins and John Scoullar, and works strategically to enhance it.

That said, the linear structure of the story itself presents a challenge. Does a series of anecdotes work? Does the message get stronger through nine or 10 iterations or just repeat itself? That’s pretty much up to you.

But here’s the case for tagging along with the prince.

First, this production has a consistent vision, renders a unique package in a way that respects the author while adding its own touch. The set and lighting echo the books’s impressionistic flavor, right down to those wispy cumulus clouds. A turntable on the stage allows all the quirky characters to pass clockwise in novel ways, tweaking our notions of time and space.

Performers also pull their weight, particularly in a brilliant pas de deux between Trenell Mooring in multiple roles and dancer and puppeteer Carolina Esparza. As the Rose and the Snake, Mooring shivers and slithers, startlingly in character. Esparza, inches away, expresses a creeping caterpillar in a candy apple red gown, or a death rattle with Flamenco flourish. They settle in a little longer for the Fox, who delivers the most critical lines, including, "What is essential is invisible to the eye." This tandem is the best thing in the show, the deal maker, the ace that turns two pairs into a full house.

That’s not to say the others in the cast aren’t terrific. They do quite well, starting with Michael David, the stranded aviator who sees the prince in a lucid or hallucinatory dream and constitutes his audience. As the impatient adult, David contrasts sharply with the frustrated prince whose wisdom exceeds his own, despite their age difference.

That brings up Will Garrabrant as the prince, a role he seems destined to play at Freefall, where he might be a future king. This is Will’s eighth show at the theater, a passion he juggles with being a fifth-grader at Perkins Elementary’s arts magnet. At times Will comes across less as a child than a preternaturally small adult, particularly when he’s got twice as many lines as any of his peers.

With that comes the show’s biggest burden, namely its sheer profusion of words in similar sounding packages, trailing from east to west like slogans trailing behind a Cessna. At times, Will’s delivery sounds as if he is reading a storybook aloud. Which is fine, except I thought this was a play. Then again, Scoullar bequeathed this script (Cummins wrote music for it), which feels like an adaptation interspersed with chunks of original source material. At times, interest starts to flag. That much understood, Will handles this heaviest of loads with outsized aplomb.

Meanwhile, Logan Wolfe does quadruple duty populating several one-man planets, all of which depict vanity and striving after wind. Among them are a geographer who records towns, rivers and people he never sees. And there’s a businessman with an adding machine who counts stars — to "own them," he says. His blondish hair swoops around and over the top of his head, disappearing into a ducktail you might recognize.

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

If you go

Runs through Dec. 24. About 90 minutes with no intermission. Audience talkbacks start at 10 p.m. Fridays, with a pre-show discussion at 1 p.m. Dec. 23. 6099 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. $25-$50. (727) 498-5205. For show times, visit freefalltheatre.com.

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