"Charlotte's Web" is a mature look at death.
Since the early 1990s, Philadelphia’s performing arts scene has been characterized by a willingness to regularly deny, defy and even defile categories previously thought to be separate and distinct. In works by companies like Headlong Dance Theater, New Paradise Laboratories, JUNK, and Pig Iron Theatre Company, the boundaries separating dance, theater, music, poetry, clowning, acrobatics, and other genres were happily ignored. By the start of the new millennium, forms had been so thoroughly mixed, mingled and mashed that the labels once applied to distinguish different categories of performing arts had become almost irrelevant.
The latest casualty in this war on conventionality is being waged at the Arden Theatre Company, where they are changing perceptions about children’s theater with director Whit MacLaughlin’s Charlotte’s Web, which is so startlingly mature it seems inappropriate to even call it children’s theater.
Adapted for the stage by Joseph Robinette from E.B. White’s classic book of the same name, this is the second time the Arden has staged Robinette’s play. In 1998, the Arden kicked off its children’s theater program with a production of Robinette’s play helmed by Arden artistic director Terrence J. Nolen.
Featuring a cast of award-winning actors (including Scott Greer, Jen Childs, Ian Merrill Peakes, Aaron Cromie, and Kala Lynn Moses as Charlotte), Nolen’s charming production showed that the Arden would devote the same resources to its children’s theater as it would with its adult productions. “We believe kids deserve our best and over the years we have been able to attract brilliant artists as well,” explains Nolen.
The company’s current production of Web likewise doesn’t skimp on talent. Starring the young actor Aubie Merrylees as Wilbur the pig and Sarah Gliko as a bewitching Charlotte, the production’s nine-member ensemble convincingly portrays both human characters and a barnyard full of animals (Leah Walton and Charlie DelMarcelle are especially good as a pair of rubberneck geese and Anthony Lawton makes a delightfully devious rat).
However, it isn’t the fine acting, impressive design or imaginative direction that makes MacLaughlin’s supremely theatrical production so surprising. Rather, it is the production’s frank exploration of the very adult topic of death that makes this Web so provocative.
The story focuses on a likeable pig named Wilbur who is sold to a nearby farm, where they plan to fatten him up, kill him and turn him into the best part of a BLT. The fact that Wilbur will be slaughtered is known to everyone (including the farmyard animals) but Wilbur; though as the story progresses he becomes increasingly suspicious that his future is short. His fate is revealed to him by a friendly sheep (the excellent Brian Anthony Wilson). “Wilbur, you are going to die.”
It is a frank declaration, but there is no sign of fear or panic among the youngest audience members (the show is recommended for 5 and older). Later, when Charlotte dies in a final, selfless act of friendship, the audience’s response is more admiration than sadness.
The production has been extended twice and it is now the biggest ticket seller in the Arden’s history. It isn’t the first time a supposed children’s show has become a hit at the theater; the three most attended productions in the company’s history were created for the Arden’s children’s theater.
Web is the 13th production MacLaughlin has directed for the Arden’s children’s theater, and he says his approach is the same he uses with his experimental theater company New Paradise Laboratories, which produces extremely cutting-edge theater often presented at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival.
“I don’t do anything different for kids” says MacLaughlin, who says that children’s theater should never be a “second class endeavor. I’m an experimentalist. I’m always trying to think outside of my own box.” At Web’s final technical rehearsals, MacLaughlin decided to radically strip the production of the usual “stage artifice.” Out went the animal costumes, set dressing and nearly all the recorded sound.
MacLaughlin says his goal is to avoid children’s theater that is “kidified,” sounds “explain-y” or is overtly cute, overly colorful, attempts to dodge the truth or softens realities such as death.
The local theater community has begun to take notice. In 2011, the Barrymore Awards for excellence in Philadelphia area (which offers no separate category for children’s shows but allows them to compete alongside adult fare) gave the award for outstanding overall production of a musical to the Arden’s children’s theater production of Jordan Harrison’s The Flea and the Professor. In all, the company’s children’s theater has garnered six Barrymore Awards.
They may still call it children’s theater, but by presenting work that respects the youngest members of the audience the Arden’s children’s theater isn’t just for kids.
Through Feb. 13. $30-$32 (adults), $20-$22 (13-17 years old), $16-$18 (12 and under). F. Otto Haas Stage, Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. Second St.