An inanimate protagonist, vignettes of death and poverty, props and set pieces strewn about the stage in apparent disorder: No, this is not some expressionist, avant-garde performance art intended for mature audiences only. This is “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane,” a magical, child-appropriate fairy tale and the latest theatrical undertaking of Company of Fools in Hailey.
“Edward Tulane” is based on the beloved, award-winning children’s novel of the same name by Kate DiCamillo, acclaimed author of “The Tale of Despereaux” and “Because of Winn-Dixie.”
The story chronicles the titular odyssey of a sentient but completely inanimate china rabbit doll. At the start of the play, he is conceited and vain as a result of the unconditional love showered upon him by his owner, a young girl named Abilene. When he is accidentally cast overboard from an ocean voyage, a fantastic series of adventures and encounters leads him through the full spectrum of human experience, and teaches him about as much as an inanimate toy rabbit can learn about love, life, humility and self.
Though the play is appropriate for all audiences, young theatergoers will likely find this quite an unusual experience. Between an unorthodox production and difficult themes of life and death, “Edward Tulane” may pose a challenge to some children, but in the best and most constructive way possible.
Early in the narrative, Abilene’s grandmother tells her a bedtime story, one that does not resolve as neatly as the little girl would hope. The moral is that things do not always work out the way you want them to. Opening with this lesson sets the stage, as it were, for Edward’s trials and tribulations. Before long, he faces terror, abandonment, destitution, illness, grief and more, but he also goes on quite the adventure.
Though these seemingly adult themes appear to be vanishing from most children’s media, there is a rich historical precedent to using fairy tales and other stories to introduce children to the harsh realities of life, albeit through a magical lens.
Amid mentions of the Brothers Grimm, Maurice Sendak and Margery Williams, actress Denise Simone recalled Fred Rogers, and his dedication to speaking to children honestly and frankly, rather than sheltering them or talking down to them. This approach, though even then considered unique, was wildly successful, both in effect and in terms of establishing Rogers’ place in the American canon. “Children and adults alike respond immediately to the honesty of [the story],” Simone said.
With that in mind, “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” is, in essence, a lighthearted, magical adventure. This prevailing sense of wonder is perfectly embodied by the unique production, specifically designed to inspire children and get them to think about the artistic process.
Though meticulously designed and set up, the staging will give the impression of a loose hodgepodge, reminiscent of a child’s prop box, with all of the various props and lighting elements scattered on stage, and actors creating improvised sets from random knickknacks. Director Natalie Battistone said she hopes the staging “will inspire young audience members to go home, grab a flashlight and some fabric and make magic of their own.”
By mimicking the way children appropriate mundane objects for their own creative purposes, the play aims to foster the imagination, demonstrating how obtainable the wonder of theater really is.
“The set, costume and lighting designs remind us that the best magic comes from within us,” said actress Aly Wepplo. “You really get the idea that with a child and a toy, we can travel the whole world.”
To further underline this general wonderment, the play features a huge cast of characters, but a tiny cast of actors. David Janeski plays “The Musician,” providing a live soundtrack with the aid of numerous instruments, and acts as the internal voice of Edward. The other three cast members—Scott Creighton, Denise Simone and Aly Wepplo—all play upwards of 10 characters apiece, capturing a wide spectrum of life in the 1930s, when the story takes place.
Rather than seeing that as a challenge, Creighton said, “It’s a joy. The characters are so fun. They’re full of humanity and warmth.”
Though the action occurs decades before any of the children in the audience were a mere flicker of the imagination, they will meet people in this play who speak to them, who seem familiar and who capture the agelessness of some innate human qualities.
While only four humans populating the cast of characters, a whopping nine handmade rabbit dolls fill the role of Edward Tulane at various stages throughout the play, each one with a number of tiny costumes to adorn.
“He gets more costume changes than anyone,” Janeski said.
Though he speaks for the audience to hear, it is important to keep in mind Edward’s motionless nature.
“He is not a puppet,” the director intimated sincerely.
The actors take him, play with him and hold him, but he does not move on his own, and Janeski does not manipulate his body in any way. He is, truly, an inanimate doll.
What makes him special, though, is the fact that all children can relate to him just being a toy. Edward succeeds the likes of Hobbes, the Velveteen Rabbit, and the varied toys owned and cherished by each young audience member.
“At some point in life, everyone develops a special bond with a certain nonspeaking creature,” Battistone said. “Without a doubt we all fantasize about what ‘it’ thinks. What ‘it’ likes. What ‘it’ dreams. Does it? Could it?”
The full run at the Liberty Theatre features a number of Beyond the Curtain special performances. The debut performance is presented as a Pay What You Feel night, wherein attendees can pay whatever amount they see fit to gain entry. There are no reserved seats, and tickets go on sale at the box office one hour before the show is scheduled to begin.
As part of a commemoration of its 23rd season, Company of Fools is offering a Second Night 23 deal. As the name indicates, all tickets for the second-night show are available for only $23.
The third show, on Friday, Dec. 14, will be an Educator’s Night with a post-show chat back. All currently employed teachers and school administrators have the opportunity to gain admittance for only $15 for this performance. The cast and crew will hang around after the show for a discussion of the content and themes of “Edward Tulane.”
After kickoff on Dec. 12, the show will run nightly at 7 p.m. until Dec. 29, with no performances on Dec. 16, Dec. 23, Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. The final performance will be a 3 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Dec. 30.
For more information on “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” or on what comes next in Company of Fools’ 23rd theatrical season, visit its website at sunvalleycenter.org/companyoffools.