Charlotte’s Web is a childhood classic for a reason. It deals with really hard coming of age issues like life and death, friendship and sacrifice and learning to let go. I’m not sure I can write this review without spoilers, so, if you have not read the book or seen one of the movies, take my advice and go to the Children’s Theatre Company production. Stop reading and just look at the pictures. Come back and read this afterwards.
Director Greg Banks has done an excellent job of pulling out the key themes of Charlotte’s Web and conveying them to the audience in an hour-and-a-half play. That is something. In that time, Wilbur has to go from helpless newborn to self-centered child to caring adult. Charlotte grows old and Fern grows up. I think I actually pulled new concepts out of this play that I missed in reading the book. For instance, I always saw the imbalance in the relationship between Charlotte and Wilbur, but through this play (and maybe parenthood), I have a better insight into Charlotte’s motives for giving so much of herself to Wilbur — who is quite self-centered through much of the story.
Gianna here: I was fortunate to go with Joy to the blogger’s all access preview and learned more about Greg Banks. Peter Brosius, CTC’s artistic director, calls various directors during the season bringing different voices to stage. Greg usually does one or two plays a year for Children’s Theatre Company most often by adapting big stories for small casts. He adapted Pinocchio for four actors in last year’s season.
But he has an excellent way with bigger productions. In fact, when he was asked to do Charlotte’s Web, the first thing he said he did was read the novel as he had never read it. (He’s a chap from England) When he put down the book, he stated, “I was keen to do the play.” He realized that deepness and reflective nature of the book could not be conveyed in the same manner during a play, so he gave it a more playful approach
The foreshadowing of Charlotte’s death is fantastic, right down to her costume — which is beautiful, but brings to mind someone fighting cancer. Parents will catch the subtlety of Charlotte’s exhaustion while their children will be as oblivious to it as Wilbur. My daughter — who I read the story to last year, but doesn’t remember it — was as caught off guard as Wilbur when Charlotte announced she would not be coming home from the fair. The relationships between Wilbur and Charlotte and Fern are poignantly portrayed. You leave knowing that Fern will soon grow up and come to visit much less, but that Wilbur is ready to move on.
My favorite part of the play was the costume design. They were so simple. Yet, so much that couldn’t be said was conveyed through them — Wilbur’s youth with his pink overalls and Charlotte’s fragility and maturity. The geese and sheep costumes were so convincing that I believed the actors were chosen for their anamorphic qualities until I saw them in other roles in the fair scene. (By the way, that can be a fun game to play with your kids. See if they can pick out the actors in all their roles.)
Gianna here again. What interested me the most was the sets. Charlotte’s Web has three different barns that need to be portrayed in four different scenes. Wilbur was born at the Arabel’s farm in their barn, was moved to the Zuckerman’s barn, was taken to the County Fair barn, and then back to the Zuckerman’s barn. With the use of different lighting techniques and props, they are able to make a seamless transition between sets. Although when the switch from the County Fair to the Zuckerman’s barn, apparently a lot of chaos is happening that the audience is unaware of.
Joy again: We learned during our preview that Greg Banks prefers to keep his sets and simple and static as possible in order to focus on the characters and their relationships with one another. We heard about the seamless transition between sets during the preview, but to see it in action was really cool. We left during the intermission to have a cookie and came back to a completely different atmosphere. Despite the fact that there was little change to the set, it went from barn to State Fair in a matter of minutes.
The actors, many of whom are very young, prepared for this play with only a few weeks of practice. Only the last week was spent on stage. Charlotte (portrayed by Joanna Harmon) spends the entire play in a harness–simultaneously operated by three puppeteers solely for her safety–crawling around the rafters. None of this could be practiced, let alone perfected, until the last week of rehearsal. You would never guess from watching her that Harmon has no circus or ballet background. She so perfectly embodied the actions of a spider.
Tickets can be a little out of range for a family on a budget, but The Children’s Theatre has some options for discounted tickets. You can find those options here. Children’s Theatre packages could be a great clutter-free Christmas gift. The best part would be that it would just keep giving.
It’s Gianna with one more thing to mention. Apparently Patrick’s Bakery and Cafe has created a specialty treat just in honor of Wilbur at Children’s Theatre Company. During intermission, they will have Pig Sugar Cookies available for purchase. All the staff was raving about them. So if you need just one more reason to help make your decision to go, there you have it. Pig Sugar Cookies.
From Joy: We shared one of those Pig Sugar Cookies during the intermission. Speaking as someone who doesn’t like sugar cookies, it WAS amazing. I recommend it.
Two really nice things about concessions at the Children’s Theatre. 1) All items are $2.00. Since my kids are expected to pay for their own concessions, this makes planning really simple. They can know going in how many items they can purchase. 2) If you get there early, you can purchase your concessions before the play and they will hold them for you in a brown paper bag that you can grab during the intermission. This is a wonderful idea. Intermission is only 15 minutes and the line is long.
Charlotte’s Web runs through October 27th.