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Adapted by Rick Cummins and John Scoullar from the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Did the Germans shoot down Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1944 reconnaissance flight? Or was it his publicist? No doubt about it, the French author’s death-in-cockpit was just the thing to ensure immortality for The Little Prince, in which a downed pilot meets a nomadic boy from Asteroid B-612. Like the drawings that accompany it, Saint-Ex’s story, written while on convalescence in North America, is most charming when it’s most elliptical. Fill in too many of the outlines and you begin to see only fault lines: the epigrammatic reflux of the prose, the flaxen sentimentality, the kowtowing toward prepubescent wisdom. (It wasn’t astral boy-philosophers who saved France from Hitler.) So on the roster of beloved children’s books, The Little Prince may be the closest to unadaptable. Which hasn’t kept Round House Theatre from doing its damnedest, starting with the entirely convincing World War II–era fighter plane that set designer James Kronzer has buried nose-first in the stage—one could easily imagine Saint-Ex himself stepping from the wreckage. Director Eric Ting makes ingenious use of a portable proscenium to frame the Prince’s interplanetary treks. (Jen Plants, reappearing in a fresh guise with each sweep of the curtain, brings welcome astringency to this parade of fools, which might have been lifted straight from Candide.) And if Jamie Klassel lacks the boyishness and the spectral gravity we associate with the title character, she has passion enough for all the story’s emotional demands. Everyone involved is working hard—a mite too hard—to flesh out Saint-Ex’s gossamer vision. Why, then, was I gouging myself to stay awake? The most proximate cause, probably, is the Rick Cummins–John Scoullar adaptation, which keeps nudging us toward awe (“You took me on this incredible journey….What’s going on in that amazing little mind of yours?”) and belaboring every pensée as if the author hadn’t already ground our nose in it. It’s fitting that the production’s most beguiling moment comes when it diverges most markedly from the original: a pas de deux between prince and fox that riffs on the book’s themes instead of merely underscoring them. In the play’s final moments, the pilot, bearing his young friend toward a secret well, compares the experience to “carrying a fragile treasure.” A fine analogy, as it happens, for the task of adapting Saint-Ex’s all-too-perishable parable, which crumbles the moment it’s lifted from the page.—Louis Bayard