Review: At Fresno City, this ‘Prince’ looks dapper but struggles to connect emotionally
One of the best things about Fresno City College’s handsome but perplexing adaptation of the classic fable “The Little Prince” is the Prince himself.
Anthony teNyenhuis, who plays the title role, has a firm grasp on this difficult character. Should the Prince — who appears in the middle of the Sahara Desert after the play’s narrator, a harumph-y guy referred to as the Aviator, crashes his small plane there — be played as a little boy? Or is he more like a little man? The Prince’s actions can seem juvenile, but often his pronouncements are tinged with a prophetic, otherworldly wisdom.
Pictured above: Anthony teNyenhuis and Julia Prieto in a scene from ‘The Little Prince.’ Photo: Fresno City College
I like how teNyenhuis’ performance never strays toward either extreme. He doesn’t try to play the role with a precocious-child sitcom snark. Nor does he aim for an overacted, “Peter Pan”-style, overbearing, adult-as-adolescent smugness. Instead, he blends these traits into a character who, overall, in the context of the play, manages to make a lot of sense.
There are many things in the play that don’t make sense, however, at least to me. This non-musical adaptation is based on the classic 1943 children’s novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who was a national literary hero in France. I did not read this work as a child, which likely contributed to my cold (and occasionally stupefied) reaction to the production. I did not have a soft cushion of nostalgia to fall back on.
Director Janine Christl and her hard-working creative team (scenic and lighting design by Christina McCollam-Martinez, costume and makeup design by Debra Erven, video projection design by Ricardo Rivera) put together lively settings, costumes and effects. Among my favorites: the debut moments of the Rose (a strong Jessica Rose Knotts), the Little Prince’s beautiful but problematic companion on his tiny planet; the costume of the Snake (Aleah Muniz, in another bright performance), complete with a rattling tail; the animated projections tracing the drawings of the Aviator; and the crash of the plane. Movement director Cristal Tiscareno uses her black-suited ensemble members in inventive ways.
But I got bogged down in the odd narrative, which involves the prince fleeing his planet because of the neediness (and bossiness) of the Rose, then visiting several dysfunctional characters who live on their own tiny planets, and finally landing on Earth, where he meets a Fox and some flowers, then crosses paths with and becomes friends with the downed Aviator (Sean Stoll).
There is much to unpack in “The Little Prince” and a lot of room for interpretation. The sanctity of childhood is a key concept. If only adults could retain their “inner children” — if they could keep from outgrowing their childhood acceptance of life’s mystery and wonder — then the world would be a better place.
You can also interpret the story as making a statement about the lack of importance of the material world. In a key moment, the Fox (Julia Prieto) offers some sage advice: “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”
The list goes on. After watching the play, I found a fascinating article by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, who sees “The Little Prince” as a story of World War II, specifically a fable about the defeat of France and the Nazi occupation. (Like I say, lots of possible interpretations.)
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My take: I started thinking of the story as a Christian allegory. Hear me out. Consider the elements: the savior-type figure from another plane of existence; the role of the serpent in introducing evil; the taming of a wild beast; the sacrifice of an earthly body to save those left behind; even the idea of some type of being “up above” looking down from a “heaven” of stars.
In some ways, then, “The Little Prince” is an intellectual extravaganza. What I did not feel with the stage adaptation, however, is a strong emotional impact to the characters or material. (Only with the relationship between the Prince and the Fox did I clearly see something with my heart, you could say.)
Because of that, I’m not sure of its overall appeal to younger children.
One major thing missing, of course, is Saint-Exupéry’s distinctive illustrations for the book. I’ve since perused some of them, and they do, indeed, impart a warmth and whimsy to the story that is hard to replicate. For decades, the Prince, as illustrated by the author, has resided within the two-dimensional pages of the book. Perhaps pulling him out of those whimsical pages and plopping him on a stage — an act that, despite all the fancy tricks of stagecraft, makes him more dimensional, more corporeal, less whimsical — means we lose something in the process.
Or maybe I just need to time-travel back to when I was 7 and have someone read “The Little Prince” to me.