Anne Byrd read and reread “Charlotte’s Web,” the 1952 children’s novel by E.B. White, when she was little.
The heartwarming tale “had lovely little lessons about friendship without being overly preachy or instructive,” she said.
So she jumped at the opportunity to direct the one-act play version of “Charlotte’s Web” at the Old Log Theatre in Excelsior. It runs from June 23 to Aug. 14.
Even though the play is relatively short, it’s very consistent with the novel. “It still captured the spirit of the book really well,” said Byrd, who is in her first stint at the cabinlike theater.
Most of the play’s action revolves around Wilbur, a pig, and Charlotte, a spider. Farmers, the family doctor, fairgoers and other animals are also featured. Over half of the seven-member cast, all of whom are adults, juggle multiple roles, she said.
It’s always a challenge when a play involves animal characters, and the theater sought a creative solution. Humans can dress up as animals, but with a small cast and limited space, she wanted to avoid elaborate costume changes.
Another approach is to forgo the costumes, meaning that people have to use their imaginations. At Old Log, they came up with the idea of using puppets, though not of the “Muppet” variety. “I was intrigued by found-object puppetry — instead of fuzzy animals,” Byrd said.
To take it further, the found objects are ordinary things one might find in a barn, like pails or tools. The puppets are “more than just ‘this is an animal.’ They contribute to the environment they’re in,” she said.
A young and older version of Wilbur, both of which are mainly made out of buckets, make appearances in the show. Charlotte, on the other hand, is fashioned out of a bottle, spoon and tiny rakes.
They’re not marionettes, but partial puppets. The actors need to “work in sync with the puppet aspect,” she said.
The set, too, has a rustic, homespun feel, portraying Wilbur’s time at two farms and the county fair. Those places are represented onstage.
Even though the narrative also has a sad part, it’s about “what it means to support one another … the message that we can lift each other up and make each other’s lives a little easier,” she said.
A nostalgic pick
Kent Knutson, the theater’s artistic director, said that the late Don Stolz, who previously owned the theater, had done the play many years ago.
Throughout the season each year, “He did an amazing children’s program,” which gave young patrons the chance to catch a show and play outside, he said.
It’s a tradition that Knutson wants to continue. He’s also trying to revisit some of the classics in addition to more contemporary plays. As such, Knutson started picking some of his favorites from the past, shows with meaning, like “Charlotte’s Web.”
In some ways, the animals in puppet form “are more real” than they would be if they had just had actors don costumes, he said. “The spider is as sweet as can be.”
The show, done in conjunction with the theater’s run of the “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” shares a set that flips around between shows. “It’s magical. Especially with a theater like this, we have to be very creative,” he said.
Sharayah Bunce plays Fern Arable, who takes to Wilbur right away. She doesn’t herself operate a puppet, but “it’s fun to meet eyes with some washers and bolts,” Bunce said. “Having a meaningful interaction with a bucket is interesting. It’s a challenge, but surprisingly fun, since the actor and the puppet are one.”
For example, the bucket/Wilbur might be eating from a trough while the actor is chewing with his real mouth. “It’s fully integrated,” she said.
“It’s a really fun adventure to tell a children’s story with all adult actors,” Bunce said. “We’re really emphasizing the importance of not talking down to children, or shying away from messages that might be hard.”
All in all, it’s a poignant story “about friendship and being in service to one another,” she said.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.