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‘Charlotte’s Web’ at the Arden (2nd review)BY: Dan Rottenberg 02.14.2012
Children’s theater has become the tail that wags the dog for some astute theater companies, like the Arden. Worse things could happen.
Charlotte’s Web. By Joseph Robinette, from the book by E.B. White; Whit MacLaughlin directed. Through February 12, 2012 at Arden Theatre, Haas Stage, 40 N. Second St. (215) 922-1122 or www.ardentheatre.org.
What hath ‘Sesame Street’ wrought?DAN ROTTENBERG
As I’ve mentioned before, it’s been years since I’ve attended a grownup production at the Arden Theater in Old City— mainly because, when you live just two blocks from the Avenue of the Arts, as I do, it’s always easier to take the path of least resistance and attend some play that’s around the corner.
On the other hand, over the past seven years I’ve attended four children’s productions at the Arden— mainly because, at this stage of my life, grandparenting is a high priority, and no troupe takes children’s theater quite as seriously as the Arden.
Just last week, for example, my wife and I made two trips to the Arden to see Charlotte’s Web — once with our four-year-old granddaughter from Brooklyn, and once with our eight-year-old twin grandchildren from Manhattan. Compared to their travel itinerary, Old City no longer looks like Wyoming to us.
The remarkable thing about the Arden’s children’s productions is that they appeal to adults every bit as much as to kids. Charlotte’s Web itself is a children’s story that tackles very adult themes: love and death. Charlotte the spider saves Wilbur the pig from the butcher’s block by spinning a series of ingenious webs, an effort that hastens her own inevitable demise while teaching Wilbur that “a good life is much more important than a long life.”
Wonder Woman with flute
And where else can you find a children’s play that casts Anthony Lawton— adapter of the C.S. Lewis heavyweight theological vision, The Great Divorce— simultaneously in the temperamentally conflicting roles of Lurvy the simple farmhand and Templeton the devious rat so skillfully that not until the second act did I realize the same actor was playing both parts?
What other children’s theater would offer a Charlotte like Sarah Gliko, an actress as sexy as Wonder Woman but also adept at playing the flute and studying the physiognomy of spiders? Where else could you find a Wilbur the Pig as convincing, even without a costume, as Aubie Merrylees, who actually eats from a trough and learned hog grunts by mimicking snorers?
Now it turns out that I’m not alone. As Peter Dobrin reported in Sunday’s Inquirer, the recently concluded production of Charlotte’s Web was the biggest box-office hit in the Arden’s 25-year history. What’s more, the Arden’s five biggest grossers since 1988 have all been children’s productions.
What’s going on here? Has children’s theater become the tail that wags the dog? Has the Arden found a niche that enables it to compete with the Avenue of the Arts?
When I was a kid, back in the Pleistocene Age, the very term “children’s theater” inevitably meant “not for grownups.” To a large extent it was a wasteland of didactic tales for undemanding juvenile audiences, performed by apprentice actors (or veterans phoning in their performance, secure in the knowledge that no critics or producers were in the audience).
My teacher did read E.B. White’s novella, Charlotte’s Web, to our school class. But no theater company in those days would have risked the time and energy necessary to bring such a work to the stage for such a marginal audience.
What happened since then? Rising affluence and educational levels, for one thing. The youth culture, for another: Kids have grown more sophisticated, and adults started idolizing the young instead of vice versa. The explosion of theater troupes, for another— some of which, like the Arden, shrewdly perceived that children constitute the most reliable of all audiences (just as, say, savvy movie producers now gear their films to 14-year-old boys). All those post-World War II baby boomers became grandparents, too.
Cookie Monster’s dilemma
I would also credit “Sesame Street,” the groundbreaking educational children’s TV show that from its inception in 1969 deliberately aimed its material at both children and adults and consequently attracted a large coterie of grownup groupies.
Some of “Sesame Street’s” sophisticated repartee doubtless skipped over the kids’ heads, at least at first. (When the Cookie Monster won first prize on a quiz show, he was offered a choice between $50,000 or one cookie. His response: “Could I have a minute to think it over?”) But enough of it seeped through that a couple of generations grew up with more sophisticated tastes than mine ever had.
I have no desire to revisit my childhood, since I cherish a sense of control over my destiny that kids utterly lack. (As my therapist puts it, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think they had a happy childhood, and those who know they didn’t.) Besides, in a place like the Arden, any adult can find the best of both worlds, at least for two hours.♦
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