Last Saturday, my family and I had the pleasure of attending Childsplay’s production of “Charlotte’s Web,” adapted from the E.B. White classic by Joseph Robinette, and directed by Anthony Runfola. The familiar tale of the unlikely friendship between a young pig and an old spider has long been one of my favorites, so my expectations going in to this performance were high. The cast and crew of Childsplay did not disappoint. The acting was superb and the set design, costumes, and effects were nothing short of perfection as they transported the audience back to a simpler time in 1950’s rural America.
The play begins with Fern, played by the delightful Kate Haas, singing to herself, “The itsy bitsy spider climbed up the water spout….” Immediately my three-year-old yelled, “Hey, Mom! I have that book!” So much for theater etiquette. But at the same time, I was pleased to see my younger daughter so quickly drawn in to the performance. Nicely done, Childsplay!
Although I had set out to read this beloved classic to my two daughters, Lucy (age 3) and Jula (age 6), over the summer, as you all know, life happens, and we didn’t get very far in our efforts. They knew the gist of the beginning of the story…girl meets pig, girl saves pig, pig meets spider…but that’s about as far as we got. They knew nothing of Charlotte’s attempts to save Wilbur and, of course, had no idea that Charlotte herself would one day perish. So pretty much, they knew nothing.
As a result, I wasn’t sure how my girls would react to the play. I knew they would adore Wilbur (which they did), and I felt sure they would revere Charlotte (which they did), but I couldn’t be certain that my frequently loud and energetic three-year-old would be able to follow the story enough to sit still during the production or that my overly sensitive and empathetic six-year-old would be able to keep it together when Charlotte died. I’m proud to report, they both surprised me.
To be sure, Lucy did yell out during the performance (as mentioned), and she did have a fantastic time playing the new game she invented called “Bounce in My Seat,” but she also watched the show with wide eyes and was able to tell me everything that she loved about the play later that evening: the lights for the baby spiders, the music, Wilbur and Homer playing chase, and “Charlotte the spider because she’s BEAUTIFUL!”
If you’re feeling a little unsure about whether to take your own preschooler to this performance, my advice is to know your child. Lucy is an active little girl, but she can also sit through a 90 minute movie without blinking an eye. I think live productions naturally encourage more movement and activity because the actors are right there running around on stage and our little ones are so tempted to join them, but Runfola wisely includes a fifteen minute intermission during which you can take your wiggle worms out to the lobby to burn off some energy if need be. The entire production, including intermission and the Q&A portion at the end of the show, is nearly two hours long, but not once did I see a child being removed from the theater, nor did I notice any child who likely should have been.
Childsplay recommends “Charlotte’s Web” for children ages 5 and older, undoubtedly because of the mature themes of death and mortality woven throughout the play. Runfola doesn’t sugarcoat this. Wilbur indeed faces the threat of slaughter, ax and all, and Charlotte does, in fact, die in the end. However, I think that for most of the toddler and preschool set, both of these particulars will go right over their heads. That seems to have been the case with Lucy. Aside from the ax, nothing about Wilbur’s impending doom is extremely overt, and Charlotte’s death is quiet and simple rather than gratuitous.
Older children, however, will likely pick up on these darker themes if they listen more carefully to the dialogue and narration. My six-year-old, Jula, was noticeably upset by Charlotte’s passing, and while she did not cry, she did ask A LOT of questions. After the performance, she said, “I can’t believe Charlotte died! But she didn’t die for real, right? I mean she’s still a real person, right?” This even after chatting with Debra K. Stevens, who plays Charlotte, at the end of the show! Obviously, we had much to talk about on the ride home. Depending on your older children’s prior experiences with death, I suggest you be prepared for similar conversations.
While she was deeply saddened by Charlotte’s death, Jula was mostly heartbroken at the thought of Charlotte dying alone. She wasn’t the only one. When narrator Katie McFadzen delivered the line, “No one was with her when she died,” I sniffled. A man seated three rows ahead of us surreptitiously wiped his eyes. I’m fairly certain I even heard McFadzen’s voice quiver. Such a fiercely loyal and altruistic friend did not deserve this fate.
Of course, “Charlotte’s Web” isn’t all about death and dying. The themes of friendship and kindness prevail throughout the story with even Templeton the rat learning to help others, so long as there’s something in it for him! The play may make you cry, but it will also make you laugh with comic relief provided by Jon Gentry as Templeton and a lot of good-natured chuckles at the expense of the endearingly sweet Wilbur, played by Kyle Sorrell. Gentry, my personal favorite and long-time Childsplay crush, plays the unconscionable, inconsiderate, selfish rat Templeton with such charisma and panache that I actually found myself rooting for him by the end of the play. But, of course, the real star of the show is Sorrell. He skillfully captures the childlike exuberance of the young pig Wilbur while also showing him to be earnest, innocent, and unassuming. The story is as much a coming-of-age tale for Wilbur as it is for Fern, and, by the end, Sorrell’s Wilbur has matured into an astute, resourceful, and brave leader among the barnyard animals.
Children (and adults) will also be impressed by the set design, the costumes, and the lighting and sound effects. Set Designer William H. Symington has created a simple yet imposing set consisting mainly of a single movable structure that converts from the Arables’ house to the Zuckermans’ farm to the County Fair. With every turn and transformation, I could hear Jula whisper “Whoa!” The simplicity of the barn contrasts nicely with Charlotte’s large and wondrous web, fashioned out of painted metal rods that shimmer and sparkle under the stage lights. Stevens’ Charlotte crawls gracefully across her jungle gym web, but it’s the manner in which she “weaves” her messages about Wilbur that most amazed my family. So much so, I insisted we ask her about it at the end of the show. I won’t spoil anything for you here, but know that Stevens practiced for more than eight hours over several weeks to master her “web-spinning” technique.
Adriana Diaz’s costume designs are whimsical and fun. Rather than dress the actors in typical animal fashion (i.e. realistic-looking animal costumes), Diaz instead chose to outfit them in clothing that captures the essence of their animal characters. Playful and innocent Wilbur is dressed in pink patchwork overalls with green rubber boots and a straw hat adorned with pink, pointy ears. Winsome and beautiful Charlotte wears a marbled gray and brown ball gown with layers of tulle for the skirt and four furry legs attached at her waist. Jula explained that Templeton wears a “dirty old coat” because “rats like things that are very yucky.” Diaz’s concept was not lost on her.
Tim Monson’s lighting design and Christopher Neumeyer’s sound effects bring the farm to life with roosters crowing at sunrise, dark and gloomy rainy days, and fireworks at the County Fair. Three of Charlotte’s children are represented by small individual flashes of light, marking their presence as magical and significant. Although this is a rather simple effect, it’s one that has stayed with Lucy even now, days after the show.
Runfola’s production is well thought out and staged with obvious consideration given to Childsplay’s intended audience. For example, he uses the actors to narrate the transitions between scenes. This is a clever way to move the story along when playing to an audience of children. Jula and Lucy were delighted by the manner in which he illustrates Wilbur’s maturation from piglet to pig; “The pig puppet grew and grew, and then he was a human!” Runfola’s portrayal of the Goose’s newborn goslings was an audience favorite, eliciting smiles and laughter from children and adults alike, but, once again, I won’t spoil the surprise for you here.
Childsplay’s production of “Charlotte’s Web” is lively, humorous, and heartfelt and will appeal to audiences of all ages. Children who are new to the story will fall in love with Charlotte and Wilbur, and adults who enjoyed the classic novel as children will delight in seeing these beloved characters come to life on stage. I loved it, my husband loved it, and our girls “thought it was great!”
After the show, be sure to spend some time in the lobby where theater-goers are invited to learn all about arachnids through a display board of spider trivia, read a letter from E.B. White sharing his thoughts on writing and his inspiration for the story of “Charlotte’s Web,” and test their knowledge of new vocabulary words from the play through an interactive exhibit (Did you know “arable” means suitable for farming?). A separate table offers directions for weaving a web made from pipe cleaners and yarn and encourages children to answer the question, “If Charlotte wrote a word about you in her web, what would it be?” Their answers are displayed on a giant web of yarn dubbed the “Childsplay Worldwide Web of Words.” Also check out the educational resources available on Childsplay’s web site. Although I think these are mostly intended for teachers and students on field trips, they include a lot of great activities that my girls have enjoyed.
“Charlotte’s Web” runs through Oct. 12 at the Tempe Center for the Arts with performances on Saturdays at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. and on Sundays at 1 p.m. Backstage tours are available on Sept. 27 and Oct. 4 with an ASL performance on Sept. 28.