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Back in the barn
Arden Theatre Company presents E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web
This year, the Arden remounts its Charlotte’s Web, which debuted under director Whit MacLaughlin in 2018, with Joseph Robinette’s stage adaptation of the beloved E.B. White novel. MacLaughlin returns to direct this reprisal, and not much has changed, except the new cast filling the shoes … er, paws, hooves, and webs of the animals in this classic tale.
Charlotte’s Web stars Wilbur, the runt of a litter of piglets, who is saved from the butcher by the intervention of Fern, the young daughter of the farmer. Wilbur ends up at Fern’s uncle’s farm, only to find his life is in danger again. Charlotte, a spider who lives at the farm, decides to use her talent in spinning webs to hatch a plan to save Wilbur.
The strong cast is the highlight of this show. Brennen S. Malone stars as Wilbur, with a warmth and energy that draws kids in. He uses movement and physical comedy to evoke a pig in several memorable moments, such as gleefully going full-face in some oats (which drew appreciative commentary from a youngster at the post-show Q&A), and rolling around in the hay in his pen.
Casie Girvin shines in the acrobatic role of Charlotte through her use of silk aerials, cartwheels, backbends, climbing, and tumbling to mimic the movements of a spider. Girvin has the most physically demanding role and executed it with grace and precision. Matteo Scammell steals his scenes as Templeton. He had the audience, kids and adults alike, roaring with his over-the-top antics as he scuttled around the stage, his nasally voice embodying the skeevy, self-serving rat. Jessica Money and Keith Livingston believably play the siblings Fern and Avery, who bicker like real siblings. Money brings to life a likable Fern who begins the play as an innocent kid, fighting for justice for a pig, and by the end is more interested in hanging out with boys than her former best friend.
The instrumental interludes, mostly performed by Scammell on guitar and Livingston on saxophone, add a fun element that helps hold kids’ attention, though the production’s solo song, sung by the prize pig Uncle, seemed a bit of an odd choice.
The show reprises the 2018 set design by David Gordon, with unfinished, airy wooden beams that bring the audience into the barn, overhanging the first few rows of seats. The barn and the Arden catwalk anchor Girvin’s aerial acrobatics, and a square of dirt and hay effectively evokes a barn and pigsty. Amanda Todaro’s costume design is a modern take with a Spiderman-like suit for Charlotte, a trench coat and tail for Templeton, a frilly apron on the Goose, and a pink shirt and suspenders for Wilbur (the characters’ animal-like qualities are brought in by the movements of the cast). Tasteful lighting design by Jorge Arroyo tells us the time of day (or night), and dramatizes Charlotte’s weaving and her death.
Charlotte’s Web is a timeless tale that will likely live on as a popular pick for children’s theater. While there are no big surprises since the Arden’s previous staging, this production of the E. B. White classic will continue to entertain and delight kids and adults alike.
What, When, Where
Charlotte’s Web. By E. B. White, in an adaptation by Joseph Robinette; directed by Whit MacLaughlin. $28-$45. Through January 29, 2023, at the Arden Theatre’s F. Otto Haas Stage, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia. (215) 922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.
Masks are optional in the theater, but strongly encouraged.
The Arden Theatre is an ADA-compliant venue. Assistive listening devices are always available. For more information, or to purchase accessible seating in advance, call (215) 922-1122 or email [email protected].
There will be ASL-interpreted performances of Charlotte’s Web on Friday, January 20, at 10am, and Saturday, January 21, at 4pm.
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