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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Imaginative Journey

Theater Review

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One has come to expect skilled acting, rich costuming and imaginative sets from First Stage Children's Theater, and their newest production doesn't disappoint. The Neverending Story (through April 5 at the Marcus Center's Todd Wehr Theater) supports a lively cast of unusual characters, each of whom poses a unique challenge to the company's costuming department. Each is brought vividly to life through a blend of puppetry, colorful textiles, sculpted forms and attenuated surfaces that lend to the play's imaginative appeal.

The story spans two worlds-the bully-ridden reality of a boy named Bastian and the fantastical world to which his beloved adventure books serve as a portal. When chased by a gang of youths, Bastian stumbles into the lair of an ornery bookseller. One of his books catapults the boy into the legendary world of Fantastica, imperiled by an unknowable darkness. The stage is divided into two parts, a raised platform on which Bastian perches engrossed in his book and below him a series of concentric platforms across which the dramas of the fictional world are played out. A young hunter named Atreyu is summoned to save the kingdom and Bastian follows his mission, eventually realizing he's a vital part of its success.

It's a thrill to watch the parade of colorful characters in this 90-minute play. Marti Gobel, a newcomer to First Stage but familiar to audiences for her regal performance in Renaissance's The Persians, is a valuable addition to the cast. Her vocal range and lithe frame lend her to a variety of roles, from an ancient tortoise and poetic oracle to a giant man-eating spider. Joe Foust pleases the crowds with his impressive comic range, from the fusty bookseller to the friendly and artless luck dragon. However, children play the main parts in this production. Thomas Mazza invests the role of Bastian with a harried, Harry Potter charm and Mack Folkert plays Atreyu with grim valor. The two young heroes ably support the story's theme of imaginative transcendence.