It being the season of excess, one might expect Theatre de la Jeune Lune's adaptation of The Little Prince, Antoine De St. Exupéry's 1943 allegory, to be a lavish, fun-for-the-whole-Francophile-family affair. One would be wrong. As director Dominique Serrand explained to the audience on opening night, the pull-out-all-the-stops approach came under consideration, but the more he and his collaborators worked on the adaptation, the more spare it became. The result is at times too airy and slack, but nonetheless a profound take on a familiar source.
The plot concerns an airman flying solo over the Sahara. His plane crashes, and he's confronted by loneliness and privation until visited by a mysterious boy who spouts seeming nonsense and claims to be from another world. Jeune Lune has opted to depict the desolation of the scene without a proper set. The floor is painted the color of sand, and much of the comings and goings are accented only by Marcus Dilliard's subtle lighting design, which manages to both expand and collapse the cavernous theater.
Steven Epp and Nathan Keepers split the part of the pilot. Epp opens with a tale of childhood frustration that seems affected until one recognizes that Epp is speaking as an intelligent child befuddled by the mental thickness of the adults around him. It's a convincing and touching voice to which Epp returns through the night. The cast is rounded out by Max Friedman as the Prince, and the eighth-grader takes on the role with an appropriate mix of fecklessness and command. He also manages disappointment and dismay upon learning that his beloved flower possesses a thorn, a sequence that felt too abstract at the time but which, like a number of things about this show, coalesced hours later upon recollection.
There's spare violin accompaniment (by Alison Pincus) and a lot of movement, but the show is nothing close to a musical. It disarms with comedy, particularly in the early going with Epp and Keepers locating a nice sense of timing and rapport between two halves of a disembodied self. As things progress, a number of abstract interludes appear, during which the Prince's famous scarf gets an inordinate degree of mileage. By the time the boy takes the pilot on a tour of faraway worlds, we're more than halfway into this hour-long show. Epp casually announces that he's going to play the prince for a while (Friedman is offstage) and that, well, he's also going to play the pilot--of course Keepers is the pilot at this point, but it evokes the abstraction that all three actors represent facets of a single identity. The tour, rather than a fantasy, is recast as gentle pantomime and slapstick. Keepers portrays a star counter as Abbott to Epp's Costello, and the depiction of the galaxy's smallest planet involves the two rotating around a lamp and greeting each other at the beginning and end of each impossibly brief "day."
Epp's assured performance is key (at one point the action requires him to literally carry the other two actors on his back). A crucial moment is his explosion against adult perception of "matters of consequence," performed while holding Friedman like a ventriloquist's dummy. The show, not without its moments of tedium (at times the line is crossed between the pleasingly gossamery and the featherweight), arrives finally at the shores of innocence and experience, but the pilot's journey through the Sahara is also about the knowledge we possess during childhood that has to be tamped down and forgotten in order for us to make our peace with the desert of reality. The pilot does what he has to, and survives, but at the price of knowing both more and less about what might be important, vital, and real. It seems fittingly odd that a show so cerebral can lead us to question what calluses and deficiencies might exist in our hearts, and how they got there. And how a work so often associated with glorifying childhood simplicity should lead us someplace deeper, where our matters of consequence are rightfully stood on their heads.