Stage Door Review

The Neverending Story

Sunday, July 28, 2019

✭✭

by David S. Craig, directed by Jillian Keiley

• Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, Stratford

June 15-November 3, 2019;

• National Arts Centre, Ottawa

January 31-February 15, 2020

The Childlike Empress: “He simply can’t imagine that one little boy could be that important”

The Stratford Festival’s production of The Neverending Story is one of the most dazzling productions of a children’s play the Festival has ever presented. The play is David S. Craig’s 2007 adaptation of the 1979 novel (Die unendliche Geschichte in the original) by German author Michael Ende (1929-95). The novel is a celebration of the human imagination and director Jillian Keiley with the help of an extraordinarily inventive creative team uses a wide range of theatrical means to demonstrate that the stage is also a home to the imagination.

For those who don’t know the novel or Wolfgang Petersen’s superficial 1984 movie based on it, here is the background I supplied when Young People’s Theatre staged this adaptation in 2012: “The story concerns a young boy Bastian Balthazar Bux, who is bullied at school and whose father has withdrawn from life after Bastian’s mother’s death. One day in escaping from his tormentors, Bastian finds shelter in a bookstore run by the uncongenial Carl Conrad Coreander. Coreander tells Bastian of a magical book called The Neverending Story and when Coreander is distracted Bastian steals the book on impulse and spends the rest of the day and night reading it in the attic of his school. 

“The book is set in the land of Fantastica. In the original it is “Phantásien”, which would much better be translated as “Fantasia” since this world is essentially the world of fantasy or the imagination. In the novel we learn that Fantastica is built on every dream that has ever been dreamed. In this strange world there is a boy the same age as Bastian – Atreyu. He is a Greenskin warrior is hunting purple buffalo on the Grassy Sea with his trusty horse Artax, when he is summoned by an emissary of the Childlike Empress, the ailing ruler of Fantastica. He must find a cure for her disease which will thereby stop the destruction of their world by an unknown force called The Nothing (“Das Nichts” in the original that also means “the void”) which is gradually causing the realm to disappear. 

“During his quest, Atreyu undergoes many tests but eventually discovers that the Empress can only be cured by someone who exists outside their world – in fact, by the very person reading the book. Bastian’s enthusiasm for the story had causing him accidentally to intervene in the events, but now he is actually summoned to enter the world of Fantastica to save it”.

Thus, the novel is a book about the effect of reading a book. We say that a person is emotionally drawn into a story. In The Neverending Story Bastian is physically drawn into the story. Since Fantastica is constructed from the dreams of human beings, only a human being, i.e. someone from outside Fantastica, can save it. The means is simply to give the Childlike Empress a new name, but only human beings who live outside Fantastica have the imagination to invent such a thing.

Those who have already read the novel should know that Craig has adapted only the first half of the work. That half ends on an upbeat note and asks intriguing questions about the nature of reading and the importance of imagination in both fiction and real life. This part of the novel is ideal for Craig’s intended audience of children in Grades 3-8. The second half of the novel in which Bastian becomes trapped in Fantastica and needs help to get out is much darker and poses much more complex questions.

To create the world of Fantastica, Keiley, designer Bretta Gerecke, lighting designer Leigh Ann Vardy and movement and puppetry director Brad Cook have worked closely together to create effects most similar to black light theatre. The back wall is covered with a light-absorbent black curtain in which are set an array of computer-controlled LED lights. Actors clad in black are invisible in front of this curtain even when some of the lights are on. 

Black-clad actors are used to manipulate the many fantastic creatures. Andrew Robinson plays the head of and lends his calming voice to the kindly-looking, glowing white steed Artax. Rylan Wilkie plays the odd spherical head and voices the dragon Falkor, who looks more like a cartoon insect than a dragon but at least does not look like the shag-carpeted canine of the movie. 

Three of the many creatures in Fantastica are realized in especially inventive ways. Many performers holding green-glowing circular shields move as a choreographed group until forming a dome-like shape. Then emerges the green head of Morla, a turtle and the most ancient creature in Fantastica, whom Kim Horsman plays as cynical and supremely indifferent to Atreyu’s quest. 

Laura Condlln, who plays the concerned Chancellor of the Ivory Tower, also is the frightening voice of Ygramul, a giant spider. Eight performers move Ygramul’s multicoloured legs in concert as Condlln shifts the creatures four red eyes.

Sean Arbuckle has three notable roles. He plays Gmork the werewolf both as a suspicious-looking man in a bowler hat and as a wolf signalled by the glowing outlines of his wolf-head made it seems from green neon wire. Arbuckle, with Andrew Robinson, manipulates the diminutive puppets who represent the wise gnomes Urgl and Engywook. These two have the most endearing personalities of all the strange creatures with Arbuckle differentiating Engywook’s tendency to pedantry from Urgl’s common sense. 

The largest roles require no puppetry or teamwork. Jake Runeckles well brings out Bastian’s boyish enthusiasm and amazement when he realizes the characters in the book are speaking directly to him. Qasim Khan is excellent as the boy-hero Atreyu and always manages to suggest a layer of understandable fear beneath Atreyu’s outward bravado. 

The other non-special effects characters have so few lines that they are lucky if they convey one trait clearly. As Bastian’s father, Tim Campbell gives us a man sinking into depression who tries to hide it from his son. Roy Lewis turns out to be such a genial Coreander we wish Craig had made his role larger so that we could learn that he, too, had been to Fantastica and back. As the Childlike Empress, Mamie Zwettler manages to keep the contradictory elements of the character’s nature, both regal and helpless, in balance. 

What is most admirable about the production is that Keiley keeps the emphasis on theatricality. It would have been very easy to succumb to the recent trend of using video projections to establish locations and animation to create characters. But then, as in last year’s The Magician’s Nephew at the Shaw Festival, we might as well be watching a movie rather than experiencing the effect of reading and how words conjure up images from the amorphous world of the imagination. 

Keiley does much with Leigh Ann Vardy’s lighting which is especially inventive. With just a flicker of a pinspot she can make characters appear or disappear thanks to the black draping at the back. She produces warm lighting for kindly figures like Bastian’s father, Coreander or the two gnomes and chilly lighting for the frightening figures like Ygramul or Gmork. Vardy’s lighting is key to differentiating the three gates that are Atreyu’s main trial.

Glam rocker Hawksley Workman provides an atmospheric soundtrack for the entire show. He may have had the worthy goal of erasing the annoying earworm of Limahl’s title song from the movie, but his new title song is just not memorable enough to do the trick.

Young People’s Theatre presented the Canadian premiere of Craig’s adaptation in 2012 in a charming, highly inventive production that was just as successful as Stratford’s present production though demanding far fewer personnel, a much smaller budget and far lower ticket prices. That experience demonstrates a point I have mentioned many times, namely that children do not require high production values to be entertained. All they need is a good story well told. High production values are for the adults whose imaginations have ossified and need more external stimuli to replace it. That, in fact, is one of the points of the book and the play. Reading a book with an engaging story is all that is needed to draw a child into another world. 

Craig’s adaptation really provides only the bare bones of the first half of the novel. If he had intended it as much for adults as for children he might have made more of the parallel between The Nothing that is consuming Fantastica and the depression following the death of Bastian’s mother that is consuming Bastian’s father and, though he may not know it, Bastian himself. As an outline that allows creative teams wide latitude in invention to fill in with their imaginations, Craig’s adaption is a theatrical gift. As a story that will engage adults as much as it will children, it is a pity that Craig omits the aspects of Ende’s novel that would give it greater psychological depth and emotional punch.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: Qasim Khan as Atreyu and Andrew Robinson as Artax; Roy Lewis as Coreander and Jake Runeckles as Bastian; Qasim Khan as Atreyu and Kim Horsman as Morla; Mamie Zwettler as the Childlike Empress. © 2019 Emily Cooper.

For tickets, visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.