Riffing on The Prince

 A modern homage to a well-loved book
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  January 16, 2014

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WAR STORIES Blair Hundertmark plays a wounded Officer in NHTP's Finding the Prince 

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1943 children’s book The Little Prince, the story of a young interplanetary traveler who befriends an aviator stranded in the Sahara, is one of the best-selling and most often-adapted books ever printed. Generations have been charmed as its title character — sole resident of a tiny asteroid — shares with his harried grown-up friend his deceptively whimsical wisdom about human nature. Over the years, artists have brought the novella’s child’s-eye philosophy to myriad stages and the screen, and now, in a brand-new script called Finding the Prince, the beloved text serves as a prism for a very specific human experience: military wartime. This contemplative multimedia theater work, created by Genevieve Aichele, CJ Lewis, and Shay Willard, for the 25th anniversary season of the New Hampshire Theatre Project, explores the individual costs of deployment, as set in “any time, any war.”

A jarring crash, harrowing screams, and projections of combat footage open Finding, as a military plane goes down in an unnamed desert. It strands four people: a badly wounded Officer (Blair Hundertmark), a rigid, bitter female Soldier (Heather Glenn Wixson), a laconic photojournalist (Robin Fowler), and a sensitive Medic (Kyle Andrew Milner). The Medic has acquired a copy of The Little Prince, and in the face of the heat and their desperation, together the four read it aloud. And much like the book’s precocious title character brings solace, perspective, and communion to its stranded aviator, so in Finding the Prince do his stories help these lost people recall their humanity.

Not an adaptation but a riff of sorts, NHTP’s production alternates compellingly between real-time interactions among the characters and their individual dreams, using the fable-like anecdotes of the Little Prince (Josh Goldberg, in the video component) to constellate the characters’ trauma. In their waking hours, under lights evoking scorching sun, then moon, they move little, in slow-shifting tableaux of torpor.

But in dreams, the action is heightened by two-screen film projections and stylized ensemble work, as the four see themselves as if through a Little Prince kaleidoscope: The Soldier, haunted by a young son who has forgotten her, dreams of the fox who teaches the Little Prince about love as “being tamed”; the Medic, troubled by death and his fallibility as a healer, dreams of the snake who offers the Little Prince his venom. Meanwhile, the screens display excerpts from Saint-Exupéry’s text, as if revealing the words that imprint themselves on the characters’ increasingly fragile eyes and psyches. As time, book, and dreams progress, the characters confide in each other during their waking hours.

The result is lyrical and meditative — a tone encouraged by a recurring soundtrack of French composer Erik Satie — with a fanciful, sometimes fevered fluidity between the book and the characters’ plight. While the book’s human themes are universal — loneliness, ambition, love, death — NHTP focuses them by drawing on the experiences of real-life U.S. Army veterans (Tasha Dooley and Marc Ghen, who consulted on the project). As the characters touch upon the arbitrariness of their assignments, sexual discrimination, the ambivalence of documenting war, and the challenge of parenthood while on active duty, Finding succeeds in sensitively exploring the nuances of life in deployment — and in suggesting story and communion as their balm.

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