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Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2008

Into the Web

Theater Review

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One of the greatest achievements of E.B. White's 1952 novel Charlotte's Web is that it avoids talking down to children. Alongside the humor and hope inherent in a barn spider's selfless friendship with a runty pig, the tale illuminates the graver realities of nature and survival. First Stage's production of Charlotte's Web doesn't fully eclipse these graver themes but focuses more on the tale's lyrical life/death cycle, investing it with a mystical quality that runs somewhat contrary to its earthy appeal.

The play is bookended by a scene of ritualistic enchantment enacted by the same actress who plays Charlotte, robbing the latter of some of her bite and highlighting instead her benign characteristics. That's all very well for younger audience members, but older children and adults attending the play may miss the tartness that makes her character so believable and amusing. Thirza Defoe's Charlotte displays plenty of grace and charm (and a haunting singing voice) but one can't imagine her coolly trapping witless insects in her web and draining them of blood!

Nevertheless, she and the rest of the child and adult cast displayed much energy on opening night, from the skittish Lamb played by Natalie Alteri to John Filmanowicz's performance as Wilbur, tirelessly scuttling about on all fours for the entire evening. However it was Todd Denning and Alison Mary Forbes who played their respective roles as Templeton and Goose with greatest relish. Denning was hypnotically repulsive as the sneaky, opportunistic rat and Forbes's flappable righteousness was relayed amidst a flurry of avian antics.

One of the challenges facing the costume designers of such a production is expressing both the characters' animal traits and their human empathies. Here Rachel Anne Healy's costumes exhibit a range of approaches, supplying some characters with floppy ears, wooly vests and in one case a cumbersome pig head and body suit, while at other times opting for a subtler approach that hints at rather than overstates the character's animal personality. The latter approach is often more effective, as was amply displayed in First Stage's earlier production of Frog and Toad.

The set is one of the strongest elements of the production: a charming reconstruction of a cluttered barn, complete with sacks of grain and upturned crates, all bathed in a warm autumnal glow. The centerpiece is a large and sturdy spider's web constructed of steel struts. Using minimal additions like bunting, checkered picnic cloths and festive music the barn is quickly transformed into a fairground. It is here that the play makes what I consider a significant departure from the book. Charlotte's death is marked by sense of ceremony that's excluded in the book. It suggests that today's children, nourished on Disney's saccharine sentiments, cannot grasp the idea of death underscored by oblivion.

Runs through Nov. 16.

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