Your child gazes out the window, aping the melancholia he sees young hipsters displaying on TV. The child sighs, heavily, sensing for the first time that perhaps life is a dreary burden, a long and painful enterprise upon which every traveler must embark.
'Cause there's, like, so totally nothing to do.
It's a good thing Clark Theatre produced The Phantom Tollbooth, a stage adaptation of Norton Juster's children's book, April 10-13.
It's odd that young children become bored so easily. Perhaps it is a result of technological advances, which turned the games of Tea Party and Cops & Robbers into reality TV shows and surround-sound video games. Perhaps it's a function of weaker scientific education in the primary schools, which closes off entire worlds to children.
But the phenomenon isn't all that new. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which begins with Alice sitting bored by her older sister, was published back in 1865. Dr. Theodor Seuss Geisel starred two bored siblings in his famous The Cat in the Hat in 1957. Jan and Stan's famous Berenstain Bears have been fending off boredom in their various adventures since 1974.
One of the most whimsical literary accounts of a young child's escape from the doldrums, however, is Norton Juster's 1961 novel, The Phantom Tollbooth.
According to the book, the young hero Milo always longs for something else.
"When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he'd bothered. Nothing really interested him--least of all the things that should have."
In a 2001 interview with Salon.com, Juster said, "Milo's not a dysfunctional kid. He's very typical."
In the novel, a boy named Milo, bored with life, receives a mysterious package that contains a small car and tollbooth. It's a strange toy, but with nothing else to do, he decides to indulge himself and pretend to be a motorist.
When he drives through the tollbooth, it transports him to the Kingdom of Wisdom. There, he learns that two princesses, Rhyme and Reason, have been banished to the Castle in the Air. Milo and his new friend Tock the dog decide to rescue the princesses.
The basic plot is your standard damsel-in-distress stuff, sure, but the Kingdom of Wisdom is such a whimsical place that audiences need that familiar ground.
The story's a beaten path, but the characters are far from it. They hide in the thickets like rare jungle species.
There's Kakofonous A. Dischord, who loves to make noise. (The A stands for "As Loud As Possible.") Tock the dog is (what else?) a watchdog. The Humbug is a large, grumpy insect who argues with the Spelling Bee.
Juster loves wordplay, and that bunch of puns remains one of the novel's biggest appeals.
Local youths from various school districts played all the parts in this local production of the play.
"[The actors] range from eight to about 14," said Erin Scarberry, co-manager of the Clark Theatre.
Although the show was most appropriate for an audience of a similar age range, it was enjoyable "for all ages, [especially] parents and grandparents."
Indeed, when Juster first submitted his children's novel to Random House, his editor worried that he was writing over his readers' heads. Since then, he has received many fan letters saying that some passages in the novel baffled those fans when they were younger children, but that, upon returning to the book a few years later, they discovered levels to the story they hadn't perceived the first time.
Juster might feel vindicated to know that the youths involved with Clark Theatre chose this script themselves.
"We let the kids suggest the plays they want to do," said director Genie Reiman.
The children are given many different plays to read, and from that selection they winnow down a small group of their favorites. The Clark directors then choose the season from that pool, and hold auditions for the children.
"A lot of them have read [Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth]."
Reiman said that one child, who had not been in any plays previous to this one, "decided to audition because he loved the book so much."
Reiman also acted as a costume designer for the show, and took as her cue some of the original illustrations by Jules Feiffer.
"We used those to start with," she said.
The Feiffer drawings are black-and-white pencil sketches, so she then added her own colorful vision to the costumes.
The young actors used, in addition to the costuming, "their voice and physical movements to portray... the creatures" that Milo meets during his journey.
One challenge of a play describing a long journey is that the stage must represent many different locales.
Reiman solved the problem with a combination of "scenery, lighting, and projections."
As a result, audiences enjoyed enough spectacle to intrigue a generation of children raised on television and video games, but with the same intellectual heft that prompted rave reviews from Emily Maxwell of The New Yorker upon the novel's 1961 publication.
This adaptation of Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth was written by Susan Nanus and directed by Genie Reiman. The show played April 10-13. If interested in attending future productions, or in having one's children participate in the group, visit www.clarktheatre.com for more information.
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