January 12, 2006

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Theater: This Phantom is not a menace

Youth theater group brings classic tale to life

By Robert Greene    rgreene@hippopress.com

The Phantom Tollbooth, written by Norton Juster in 1961, has long been a staple of many a child’s bookshelf.

It tells the story of Milo, a boy “who didn’t know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always.” Milo has every toy a kid could want but he’s bored, horribly bored. And then someone sends him a gift: a tollbooth. And like Narnia’s wardrobe, this tollbooth can really take you places.

The Palace Youth Theatre, a performing company made up of children ages 8-18, will present a live-action version of the story at 10 a.m. Jan. 28. (Tickets can be had via thepalacetheatre.org or by calling 668-5588.)

The Phantom Tollbooth is a well-known story with well-known characters, which include a watch dog whose body is made out of an alarm clock. Bringing the story to the stage presents a host of challenges but director Jude Bascom says her young cast is up to the task.

I read the book years ago, and I remember how visual and kind of odd the book is, so I was wondering how hard it is to put those visuals on stage.
Actually, we’re not finding it too difficult. One of the things that presents a challenge is that, at the Palace, we share the stage with the adult company. And Central High has a show going up at the same time, so we actually have to accommodate our blocking to their set. So that’s been a little bit of a challenge but because the story takes place in Milo’s imagination, sort of a dream — I like to tell the kids it is much in the same way as Dorothy’s trip to Oz; it’s all in her head — so what we’ve done is just sort of played with that a little bit. The costumes are pretty basic. They are black costumes and they sort of add pieces to them to become different characters. Splashes of color, or a beak for a bird — so in that sense it is not terrifically challenging. I think what has been most challenging for the kids has been to believe themselves and really get into the characters. It’s a tricky book to understand. So for some of the younger kids, it can be tricky to get them to understand some of the wordplay so they can deliver the lines convincingly to the audience. For those that have never read the book, I think the show might be a little puzzling — entertaining to be sure, but a little puzzling.

How different is the play from the book?
I always try, when I do a show based on a book — and a lot of the shows I do are — I always try to stay true to the original book. So, we expect that the kids are coming because they have read the book. So we want to give them, you know, our own personal take on Milo’s adventures but we also want to be true enough to the story that they can say “Oh, I remember when that happened in the book” or “Isn’t it interesting how they have translated it.” I don’t know if you remember, but one of the characters in the book is the Dodecahedron, which is this 12-faced mathematical object. — we’ve made the decision to let 12 kids play that. So they will move as one and they speak as one, but that way we have the 12 faces making 12 different expressions. So we have taken some liberties and had some fun with it but I think for the most part we have stayed true to the story.

What made you want to do this show?
We had talked, over the years, about our love for the book. And then talking to the kids we found out that a large number of the kids had read it, too, and they thought it would be a great story to do. And we try to do a combination of shows every year, both musical and straight shows. And when we pick a straight show we try to pick one that has literary appeal, and this one did. It is amazing, even after all these years, how many schools cover this book. Even now when I read it, I just take such pleasure in it. I think it has a great deal of appeal to adults, too. It was one of the first stories I can remember reading out loud to my own children. Once you start to catch on to what is going on, it’s an extremely wonderful story.



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