A Word In Edgewise: Boa Constrictors, Inside and Out: Guthrie’s “The Little Prince”

I wonder, if at age14 as I struggled with French irregular verbs, a grownup exhorting, “Memorize all the words, and by the time you’re 81, you’ll read French like a champ” would have cheered me up?

I rather think Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, creator of The Little Prince, would have mocked those grownups who live by numbers, rote memorization, and good grades. He’d reassure me that children see with the heart, that 81 is a fine time to revisit the petit bonhomme on his own 80th anniversary, and that the Guthrie’s McGuire Proscenium Stage is an excellent place to reconnect.

Rick Cummins and John Scoullar’s adaptation hews to the spirit of Saint Exupéry’s slender book. On a vast and jumbled stage–The Sahara desert? The author’s loft/writing space?–things and people shape-shift, creating magic from scratch.

A child can conjure a flock of birds from a single feather, or understand zooming aloft a tiny model plane while spluttering “Thhbbbbt!” mimics the fall of a doomed flight. Petit bonhomme is more savvy than he appears; the Aviator more childlike. The adult still bemoans his thwarted career as a famous painter when, as a child, adults in their purblind ignorance saw his first masterpiece, Boa Constrictor Digesting Elephant, and his last, The Elephant Within, as “Hats,” and counseled the boy to renounce painting.

Appearing out of the desert vastness, the little prince petitions the Aviator: “Draw me a sheep,” persisting until the Aviator sketches copies of his complete oeuvre: #1 and #2.

“No, no,” exclaims the little fellow, “I don’t want a drawing of an elephant inside a boa … Draw me a sheep!”

The aviator sketches three sheep which the little prince judges, “too old,” “too sick,” and, “a ram, not a sheep.” The aviator next draws a rectangle with holes; a box within which, he asserts, sleeps the sheep. When the little prince fears the sheep might eat his unique Rose–with whom he has a “complicated” relationship–the aviator draws a muzzle to prevent her untimely demise.

This Rose is high-strung, demanding, manipulative, whose needs forced the little prince to flee his small kingdom. A disturbing, perhaps unkind question: why was the little prince’s first souvenir a hungry herbivore?

The little prince meets various unsatisfactory denizens on other worlds, drawing wisdom and comfort primarily from a desert fox and the “moon-colored” sand serpent, his first

Earthly contact who volunteered aid, who to the prince’s “You don’t even have feet,” countered, “I can send you further than a ship.”

Friendship, the fox explains, involves taming and being tamed, creating indissoluble ties. “It’s the time you’ve lost for your rose that makes your rose so important,” warning, “you become responsible forever for that which you have tamed.”

As water supplies dwindle, the little prince urges the Aviator to seek a well, setting out one starry night until dawn when they happen upon a veritable village stone well, complete with squeaky pulley, rope, and bucket.

Time has come to seek the serpent’s aid. The little prince reassures the Aviator; “It’s too far. I can’t take this body. It’s too heavy.”

The Aviator also returns home, holding a fearsome secret: he forgot to draw a strap on the sheep’s muzzle. Did it, one sunny afternoon, on a faraway tiny planet, graze on a complicated red rose?

This magic production runs through February 5 and the book will enchant, well into your ninth decade.

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