There are times, dear readers, when I must cast myself in a bad light simply to demonstrate the power of live theater.
Saturday afternoon I caught the Coterie’s production of “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane,” a one-act play based on a young-readers novel by Kate DiCamillo. It’s about the adventures of an elegant child’s toy, a rabbit made of china who is named Edward Tulane by his first owner. In other words, it’s a show about an inanimate object.
This co-production with the UMKC theater department was staged by David P. Saar (of Childsplay, a children’s theater in Arizona) with a cast of four graduate acting students, three of whom are required to play multiple roles.
The resolute young performers play a round robin of “colorful” figures who speak in funny accents and are given little time to develop anything that might be mistaken for a convincing character. That’s mainly because of Dwayne Hartford’s episodic script, which shifts focus and changes locations like a movie.
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I’ve always thought it was cruel and unusual punishment to ask an actor to do that, but these performers gamely meet the challenge. Even so, in the early going there were moments when I was tempted to bite the inside of my cheek to stay awake. I felt as though I was watching a synthesis of every routine children’s play I’d ever seen.
But then something happened. Chalk it up to the alchemy of live theater, but the story began to work its will on me, slowly but surely thawing my iced-over heartstrings.
Edward’s thoughts are voiced by Joseph Fournier, the actor with the luxury of playing only one role. Fournier makes the most of it, lending Edward a plausible patrician personality that gradually changes as he learns humility.
Edward’s journey is narrated by Emily Nan Phillips as the Storyteller (one of nine roles she plays). At first Edward is the adored possession of 10-year-old Abilene (Nicole Marie Green in one of eight roles).
When Abilene is taken on vacation on a cruise ship, she is accosted by a couple of bullies who decide to play keep-away with Edward and let him fall overboard. Edward sinks to the bottom of the ocean, where he resides for months until one day a current from a storm at sea picks him up and shoots him to the surface.
Soon he is recovered in the net of a kindly fisherman (Spencer Christensen in one of five roles), who takes the rabbit home to his wife.
As Edward’s journey continues, he is discarded onto a garbage heap, where he is recovered by hobos; thrown into a field, where he is found by a boy whose sister is dying of pneumonia; and eventually loses consciousness when an angry cook in a diner smashes his head into shards on a counter top.
At that point Edward enters a version of the afterlife, where he’s aware of all the people who had loved him. Eventually he finds himself in a doll shop, where a kindly French doll maker has repaired him.
As you can see, the story grows dark as it moves along, and the compelling moments of tragedy had the effect of slapping me into wakefulness. In the final moments, when Edward is reunited with Abilene after a journey of 20 years, the show packs a real punch.
Scenic designer Trevor Frederiksen, a UMKC graduate student, has created a minimalist playing area on a revolving stage, crisply illuminated by Art Kent’s lighting. Marc Vital’s costumes are attractive and functional, made with an eye on quick changes.
The most impressive work comes from properties designer Alexander LaFrance, whose multiple versions of Edward were hand-made. From a distance they really look like white china.
So there you have it. My journey went from thoughts of “get me out of here” to admiration for the talents of this company — and for the surprising ways theater can engage your mind and your emotions.
To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org
“The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” runs through March 1 at the Coterie at Crown Center. Call 816-474-6552 or go to thecoterie.org.