AURORA | Nick Martinez had to stop midway through a key line to make sure the character he was playing on stage wasn’t floating six inches off the ground.
His hair dyed a bright blonde and his eyes colored a blazing blue thanks to contact lenses, Martinez momentarily dropped the practiced act of being a mischievous child. He focused instead on the puppet built from PVC pipe, foam and pool noodles he controlled with both hands, taking a moment to make sure its small feet touched the floor of the Larry D. Carter Theatre at the Community College of Aurora.
It’s an adjustment Martinez is liable to make many more times in the two weeks’ worth of rehearsals before the CCA theater department’s production of “The Little Prince” opens Nov. 7. The success of the show based on the classic 1943 children’s book by French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry will depend a lot on that puppet. After all, it carries all the responsibilities of the show’s title character.
“The toughest thing with this little guy here has been making him come to life,” Martinez said after rehearsal earlier this week, the puppet sitting in the chair beside him. Designed and built by former CCA student Takashi Cyr and accomplished local puppeteer Cory Gilstrap, the piece boasted the same vivid blonde hair and blue eyes as Martinez. “He’s a full body puppet … You really have to focus on head movements, his shoulders, his feet, everything. It’s making an inanimate object come to life.”
The Little Prince is only one of several puppets in this ambitious production directed by CCA theater director Stacey D’Angelo. The settings in St. Exupéry’s fanciful fantasy include alien planets in the far-flung corners of the galaxy. The story’s cast features talking trees, roses and snakes, characters drawn by St. Exupéry in the book. They’ll all find life in puppet form on stage for this production.
“I wanted to get the look of the book,” Cyr said, detailing the design of the Little Prince. “I was trying to figure out how a child would look in the face, but I also wanted it to be cartoony. This is a show for kids, and I want them to be drawn into this character.”
The puppets weren’t the only hurdle in putting this show together. D’Angelo and her crew designed elaborate light and shadow routines to accompany some of the show’s key monologues. CCA students collaborated to create original music for this 2000 stage adaptation of St. Exupéry’s story by Rick Cummins and John Scoullar.
“It’s been quite an undertaking,” D’Angelo said. “We had to think outside the box as far as how we’re going to create these things with the budgets that we do have.”
D’Angelo and the rest of the CCA theater department have never shied away from creative challenges. Past productions have included a reimagining of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” as a struggle between deaf and hearing families. In 2010, D’Angelo directed “Anony(mous),” a reimagining of Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey” as a take on the current immigration debate.
Even so, the upcoming production of “The Little Prince” is a new step for a department bound by the resources and budgets of a community college. St. Exupéry’s signature work has plenty of cultural currency as a beloved work of children’s literature, but it’s also full of abstractions. The structure and action of the piece is far from straightforward.
“It was a book that I came across as an adult, but the people that I talked to who read it in their younger years have taken this story with them,” D’Angelo said. “I wanted to reinterpret this show for that reason, to be able to have people recall that title and recall that character and what it meant to them.”
The title character is a lonely young ruler from another planet who offers important lessons about love, innocence and perspective. In St. Exupéry’s story, the Little Prince travels to Earth and meets an airplane pilot stranded in the Sahara desert. He speaks of his voyages to different asteroids, worlds occupied by lonely kings, drunks, businessmen and lamplighters.
“These characters are so absorbed in their worlds and alone on their planets,” said Camon DiGaetano, a first-year CCA student who plays The Aviator. “They’re isolated in every sense of the word.”
The Little Prince’s meetings with these characters yield some of the book’s most memorable and profound messages, as does his discussions with The Aviator in the lonely stretches of the Sahara. Martinez, who sheds the puppet in the final scene to play the Little Prince as himself, said finding the right voice and view for the character took plenty of work.
“It’s taking a childlike approach to things,” Martinez said. “It’s definitely a work in progress, and I’m carrying that over into my life.”
He added that he’s found plenty of messages to take away from the play: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; What is essential is invisible to the eye”; “Language is the source of misunderstandings”; “Only children know what they are looking for.”
All of these gems of wisdom and philosophy come in the form of a simple children’s story, a tale about a crash in the desert and an innocent visitor from another planet. While the scope of St. Exupéry’s story may be vast, these messages remain simple and timeless. They’re at the heart of a production that incorporates puppetry, shadow dances, original music and choreography.
“There are so many quotable moments. The poetry is so beautiful,” D’Angelo said. “There are themes about loss, about how relationships never go away and leave their imprint on us.
“It’s really about possibility,” she added.
“The Little Prince” runs from Nov. 7 to 17 at the Larry D. Carter Theatre at the Community College of Aurora, 16000 E. Centretech Parkway in Aurora. Tickets start at $10. Information: ccaurora.edu.
Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at 720-449-9707 or [email protected]
The Little Prince opens November 7 and runs through November 17. Show dates and times as well as tickets can be found at http://www.ccaurora.edu/prince.