If you know a bored child who doesn’t know what to do with their time, a trip through Susan Nanus’ The Phantom Tollbooth just might be the answer. It certainly works for Milo in Greenbelt Arts Center’s (GAC) current production.
The audience should be forewarned that Norton Juster wrote the book in 1961 to promote education. Milo is forced to think or rethink many new things in the Land of Wisdom. Milo and company learn new knowledge and skill in their adventure. Young people in the audience might also.
The play, as performed by 22 children, teens, and adults is not a metaphor for our complex society as Director Jon Gardner suggests in his notes. Professionals may have pulled that off, but this is community theater. The strength of the performance is the simple tale of adventure and heroes completing an impossible task.
Fifth-grader Harper Chadwick stars as Milo, who drives from Dictionopolis to the Castle in the Air and back. Chadwick’s memorization was skillful. He and his companions the watchdog Tock (Findley Holland) and Humbug (Aref Dejani) traverse mountains of ignorance, islands of conclusions and battle demons such as the Senses Taker, Insincerity and Dischord.
The plot revolves around a disagreement between Dictionopolis’ King Azaz (Dave Buckingham) and his brother, the Mathemagician (Wes Dennis) king of Digitopolis, over whether words and numbers are more important. When Princesses Rhyme (Stella Raymond) and Reason (Ruby Raymond) determine they are equally important, the kings banish them to the Castle in the Sky.
Buckingham and Dennis play their roles over the top. The costumes designed by Susan Neff are all wonderful, but the Kings’ wardrobes are out of this world.
Most cast members play multiple roles. Daniel Dausman stands out with his strong voice and characterizations as a Lethargarian, Word Merchant and the Dodecahedron. He gave each character something unique. Sophie Cooper is an exceptional Spelling Bee.
GAC uses a thrust stage. Backstage was a versatile black, wooden wall with slots used as steps or beds. It also housed an upper window in which Rhyme and Reason occasionally appeared. The stage crew used different paintings as scenery. Gardner’s set is low budget, but it works.
Which is more important, numbers or words? What is the “serious obstacle” both kings warned Milo before he set forth on his adventure? The answer to these questions and more is in Greenbelt.
Running Time: Seventy minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
Kakafonous A. Dischord, Michael Abendshein; The Senses Taker, Julia May; The Everpresent Wordsnatcher, Julia Frank; The Whether Man, Lydia Kalshoven; The Demon of Insincerity, Grace Krage; The Awful Dynne, Faith Ball; Page, Calista Ausema; Lethargarian, Emily Kranking; Minister, Linden Dirksen; Numbers Miner, Kristen Hines; Minister, Jason Kalshoven; Number Miner, Penny Martin; Minister, Kaitlyn Whiting.
Lighting Design by E.J. Reynolds; Sound Design by Felix Hass