Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Little Pilot
Taking the life of the French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, along with elements from his best known book "The Little Prince," the artistic team of Sandbox Theatre stir up their gifts in the realm of acting, storytelling, music, sound and visual arts to create a work that is visually stunning, aurally delightful, and overflowing with joy.
Much of The Little Pilot takes place off the ground, as the six actors perch upon bolts of silk hanging from above the stage to the floor. Three pairs of the silks are distributed, one center stage rear, one upstage right, the third upstage left, and these are combined in different ways to create all manner of imagery: deserts, oceans, mountains, and especially the aviators' sensation of being aloft. Actors can be seen swinging in, hanging from, climbing up, gliding down, hiding behind, and travelling among these luminescent silks, creating beautiful stage images borne of grace, strength and glorious imagination.
Five of the six cast members play Saint-Exupéry, each at a different age: age 7, 27, 30, 41 and 44, the year of his presumed death in an airplane crash while flying for the French Freedom Fighters during World War II. The 75-minute play is composed of snippets from Saint-Exupéry's life, at times leap-frogging from a real incident into the realm of his imagination, so that it is hard to tell the 7-year-old Antoine from his title character in "The Little Prince."
We bear witness to his near-death, hallucination-inducing crash landing in the dessert, his passionate and troubled marriage to Consuelo Sandoval, the comradery among his fellow pilots at the air-post station at Cape Juby in Spanish Morocco, establishing South American air routes for Aeroposta Argentina, two years in New York City after the 1940 German invasion of France, and his final flight for the resistance Free French Air Force in 1944, as "the world's oldest pilot." Saint-Exupéry had a fascinating, globe-trotting life, though The Little Pilot provides little in the way of a narrative thread to connect these episodes as in standard-fare life stories. We instead are presented with beautiful living images that illuminate Saint-Exupéry's passionsthe sky, the stars, flight, friends and lovers.
Oddly, his career as a writer is given short shrift. In addition to "The Little Prince," published after his death, Saint-Exupéry published numerous novels and short stories, winning French and American literary awards in his lifetime. As a journalist, he reported from world hot spots including Indochina, the Soviet Union, and the Spanish Civil War, for French periodicals. None of this makes it into The Little Pilot.
In addition to stunning visual imagery, the musical score played through the entirety of The Little Pilot adds immeasurably to each scene, as it veers from spacy new age sounds to hot-club jazz, to lullabies. Tim Donahue provides live music and, as sound designer, brings a host of aural elements that enrich the experience. Cast members, too, provide soundssighs, groans, coos, and other soundsthat express feelings, in some cases more succinctly than words.
Visual artist Kristina Fjellman has created beautiful abstractions that are projected onto the silks at different times, representing arid landscapes, lush jungles, or the vastness of the night sky. Adam Vachon's lighting design is also integral to the constantly changing environments, especially illuminating the silks to create startlingly different effects.
It is difficult to differentiate among the performances. All six actors dazzle the audience with the joy and agility they demonstrate on the silks, and all give clear, emotive readings as the various Antoines and his associates. Patrick Webster stands out as Antoine 1944, contemplating the end of his life without fear or regret, continuing to find joy in the gift of existence for as long as it is his. As Saint-Exupéry's Maman (mother), Katie Kaufmann both dotes upon and inspires her free-thinking son. Director Theo Langason moves the ensemble fluidly and with purpose, so that every moment spent on stage contributes to a part of the story.
At times the beauty and sheer daring of the actors on the silksclimbing, hanging by a twisted limb, sliding downward, spinningis so dazzling that it becomes a show in itself, captivating, but at risk of losing its connection to Saint-Exupéry. Fortunately, the thrust of the play brings us back to the hero of the piece. Perhaps these lapses are a metaphor for Saint-Exupéry's own penchant for forsaking the ground, losing himself in the freedom and vastness of the sky.
Sandbox Theatre has created a work worth seeing for its startling beauty, poignant imagery, and homage to an extraordinary individual. Saint-Exupéry is little known beyond authoring "The Little Prince". After seeing The Little Pilot, I was inspired to seek out further background on this fascinating man. I found the facts to be readily available. The Little Pilot playfully molds those facts into a joyful celebration of Saint-Exupéry and of theater.
The Little Pilot continues until October 4, 2015. It is produced by Sandbox Theatre, presented at the Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Avenue S., Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $24.00, free for Art Share members. For tickets call 612 340-0155 or go to sandboxtheatreonline.com.
Written by: The Ensemble; Director: Theo Langason; Project Leads: Evelyn Digirolamo and Kristina Fjellman; Costume Design: Mandi Johnson; Lighting Design: Adam Vachon; Sound Design: Tim Donahue; Visual Art: Kristina Fjellman; Stage Manager: Andi Cheney.
Cast: Christian Bardin Antoine 1907, Guillaument), Mark Benzel (Antoine, 1927), Evelyn Digirolamo (Consuelo, Robineau), Jonathan Dull (Antoine, 1930, Mermoz), Katie Kaufmann (Antoine, 1941, Maman, Leraux), Patrick Webster (Antoine 1944, Fabien). Live Music: Tim Donahue