The Phantom Tollbooth
The Seattle Public Theater Youth Theater Program is doing a production of "The Phantom Tollbooth" this weekend at Seattle’s Bathhouse Theater. By the time this review appears, this particular production will be over, but having seen it, I’d highly recommend this marvelous theater program for families with children who want to learn about acting and technical theater.
According to their brochure, Seattle Public Theater offers six multi-week education classes during the school year as well as a summer program. Financial aid is available for students whose families can’t afford the program, and the shows are cast without auditions, everyone welcome. Judging from this particular production, I’d also say that casting is done without regard for gender, based rather on who works well in a particular role.
"The Phantom Tollbooth," written by Norton Juster and directed by Shana Bestock (also SPT’s Artistic and Education Director), is the story of a boy named Milo (Kayla Brooks) who is bored and thinks life is dull and hardly worth paying attention to, until a mysterious tollbooth shows up in his bedroom and whisks him off to a magical adventure. (If you haven’t read the book, you really ought to.)
He meets a crazy menagerie of characters as he roams the lands of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis in the Kingdom of Wisdom with his sidekick Tock the Watchdog (Julia Schoernig), trying to rescue the princesses Rhyme (Aliza Cosgrove) and Reason (Noah Rose Ledesma) to restore order to the kingdom. On his journey he learns to appreciate the ordinary things in life.
In this production, the kids do everything with the exception of the directing. The actors ranged in age from 11-13 years, and the backstage crew ranged from 13-17. With only 5 weeks of rehearsals, these kids have whipped together a pretty great show.
It is a little on the casual side. The night I was there, we were informed that the programs might show up by the end (they didn’t) and that the show would run "an hour and 15 minutes...we think." But that doesn’t take anything away from the hard work and passion that have obviously gone into it.
The props and set are clearly mostly made of cardboard and randomly found objects (Props by Kyna Shilling and set by Suzi Tucker), but the actors handle them skillfully to create the scene. As Milo drives his toy car through the cardboard tollbooth in his bedroom, his bed, bulletin board and closet disappear and curtains are drawn to disclose mountains and a castle in the distance.
One of the first people Milo meets is the Whether Man, played by Eliza Cosgrove, who practically crackles with energy and humor. Quickly thereafter he stops thinking about what he’s doing and wanders into the doldrums, where he meets the Lethargarians who are draped all over the scenery in their pajamas, yawning and wasting time.
The Lethargarians are frightened away by the arrival of Tock the Watchdog who can’t abide anyone wasting or killing time. Tock joins Milo and together with the Humbug (Gabe Airth) they journey to help Azaz the king of Dictionopolis (Chloe Swedberg) and his brother the Mathemagician the king of Digitopolis (Skylar Tibbetts) resolve their differences regarding the importance of words and numbers, by finding and restoring sisters, Rhyme and Reason.
The word marketplace in Dictionopolis with vendors hawking their words and letters is a delight, as is the house where the shortest giant and the tallest midget, the fattest thin man and the thinnest fat man live: all really the same man (Charlie Tadlock) who is very average.
They meet the Dodecahedron who has 12 faces and who is played with great verve by Rachel Rosenbloom, who uses a story problem to give directions. As they travel off to rescue the princesses they struggle through a horde of demons, including the Everpresent Wordsnatcher (Noah Rose Ledesma), who’s like a crow with a bad attitude, picking and pecking at everything, and the Terrible Trivium (Nate Mascis), who sets them to time-wasting inessential tasks to try and distract them from the work at hand.
When they finally reach the tower where the princesses are, Tock saves the day because time can fly and off they go over the demons.
A question and answer period followed the play, and it was great fun listening to the young cast discuss the challenges of the show. If you have kids, I’d recommend seeing these productions certainly, but also getting involved in the Youth Theater Program. It seems like a marvelous outlet for creativity and collaboration.
"The Phantom Tollbooth" runs through Oct. 28 at Seattle Public Theater, 7312 W. Greenlake Dr. N. in Seattle. For info or tickets, call 206-524-1300 or visit www.seattlepublictheater.org.