"The Little Prince" has been reinterpreted often since its publication nearly 80 years ago. But when Dominique Serrand agreed to direct it for the Guthrie Theater, he zeroed in on a couple of questions: "How do we make it speak to today's world, where we feel so isolated? And what is it we need most from it?"
The answer involves hope.
The Guthrie's "The Little Prince" takes place in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's New York studio, where the native of a small French village escaped war in the 1940s, trying to create something to encourage himself and others.
"New York City was so overwhelming and different from what he was used to, so this is a bit of comfort," Serrand said. "It's in his mind but also the reality of his life every day. So I'm trying to put both [onstage]: the room in which he is and the sense of the war and isolation and that burden and guilt. And, also, creating this character who questions everything."
The hope is that this "Little Prince" will glide between the title story, as interpreted by adapters Rick Cummins and John Scoullar (and Serrand, who reinserted parts of the book), and the story of the man who wrote the children's-book-that's-maybe-really-for-adults. One thing that eases those transitions? Both main characters — a desperate aviator who crashes in a sand dune and a mysterious boy who guides the aviator to answers about existence — are versions of Saint-Exupéry.
"He's giving a chance to the child in himself to live again. So that's what I'm addressing in the show. We approach the audience to look at the child in ourselves, whether we find it vexing at times or hurtful, to let it out and let it question us," Serrand said.
Theater fans may recall that Serrand tackled "The Little Prince" in a 2005 Theatre de la Jeune Lune production that also featured Steven Epp (who plays the aviator at the Guthrie) and Nathan Keepers (who plays a snake, king and fox who parry with the prince, played by Reed Northrup). This will be a much different take (Epp and Keepers also are Serrand's collaborators in The Moving Company).
"Something we found out years ago, doing different shows, there was always some cynicism or anger or frustration — so many different emotions that come along with plays — whereas this one is so clearly about hope and innocence," said Serrand, who first envisioned a version on the Guthrie's thrust stage but realized the proscenium was a better fit. "There's a lot of magic in the show, not like Las Vegas-type magic but truly magical moments, and the proscenium allowed us to do things we wanted to do in a beautiful way."
The spare story has been interpreted as addressing war, the environment and many other pressing concerns. It's all there, Serrand notes, but he hopes the Little Prince's adventures show "if we can get close to one another, all our conflicts will disappear."
"Invisible Essence: The Little Prince" (2018) — Available to stream for free on Tubi, the thought-provoking documentary shifts between a portrait of a blind child who's a contemporary version of the title character and an investigation of how Saint-Exupéry put himself (and others, including the wife who inspired the Little Prince's hairdo) into his creation.
"The Little Prince" (2015) — Like many versions of the story, this one supplements it with other stuff. In this case, it's the parallel tale of a Type A girl who befriends an elderly neighbor (voiced by Jeff Bridges) who is building an airplane. It gets to a good place but fans of the book may wonder what happened to the prince in this animated film, available to rent at Amazon.
"The Little Prince" (1979) — There's no faulting the slightly abridged script or the nostalgic fun of revisiting the stop-motion style of animator Will Vinton, who was responsible for the California Raisins ads in the 1980s. And Cliff Robertson does well with the narration in the short, available for free on YouTube. But the evil snake is disappointing, the musical score is grating and the title character is voiced by an adult woman. Creepy.
"The Little Prince" (1974) — Steven Warner's stilted Little Prince is a big problem in this live-action movie. "Singin' in the Rain" director Stanley Donen assembled a starry cast, which includes Gene Wilder as well as Bob Fosse in a dance-based performance that inspired Michael Jackson's signature moves, but the kid wrecks it.
'The Little Prince'
Who: Adapted by Rick Cummins and John Scoullar from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's story. Directed by Dominique Serrand.
When: 7:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat., Tue., 1 p.m. Sun., 1 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Wed., Ends Feb. 5, 2023.
Where: 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls.
Protocol: Masks required at Sunday performances only.
Tickets: $31-$80, 612-377-2224 or guthrietheater.org.