The Austin Chronicle

Arts Review

Reviewed by Heather Barfield Cole, September 16, 2005, Arts

Charlotte's Web

Scottish Rite Theatre, through Oct. 15

Running time: 50 min

Charlotte's Web, the cherished children's tale by E.B. White about a pig, a girl, and a spider teaches us and our young ones about humility, trust, the power of helping others, and the delicate nature of friendship. It also reveals how the lives of those we love will end someday, but life regenerates with zealous beauty through spirit and one's offspring.

In this stage adaptation by the Scottish Rite Children's Theater, Melissa Ann Rentrop plays Fern, the tenderhearted farmer's daughter. As she admired a newly born pig much smaller in size than the other pigs, she asked it, "What shall I name you?" Then, surprisingly, she turned to us in the audience and asked it again. The children present – many of whom knew the story well – happily chimed in unison, "Wilbur!" Promptly she named him just that, giving the children a boost of confidence. As the vivacious Wilbur, Greg Stoll wears a pink body suit and headpiece with floppy ears. He dons eyeglasses, too, which makes the pig more endearing. His painted, rosy cheeks and smiling face boost his sweet demeanor. When Charlotte, the practical and talented spider, spins "Some Pig" into her web, we already know why.

Positioned stage right, Charlotte's web is an enormous stretch of string before a sheet of black. Our introduction to the arthropod is mysterious. She slowly creeps behind the curtain then moves onto a cloaked ladder to climb her web. The children murmured, "That's Charlotte. Look, that's her" in whispered awe. Gwendolyn Kelso as Charlotte is splendidly agile and poised as an eight-legged invertebrate. Costumed in black with attached arms acting in synchronicity with her real ones, she glides across the stage with the cautious intent of a dancer.

Let's remember the self-involved rat Templeton, sprightly embodied by D.H. Thompson, who through chance and greed helps in Wilbur and Charlotte's scheme to free the concerned pig from slaughter. Fellow actors Stephen Touchet (Uncle Homer Zuckerman) and Andreá Smith (Narrator) understand how to keep and hold the attention of squirmy children without being priggish or disciplinarian. Many performers have multiple roles as other animals at the farm. They require quick changes that go smoothly to the audience's eyes. The seamless timing of the show must be credited to stage manager Andrew Perry, who behind the scenes keeps a steady hand.

Under Ron Dodson's fitting direction, actors constantly communicate with the audience and have them participate in the story without ever losing the flow of the narrative. Actors enter from all corners and sides of the space, engaging the children with direct interaction as players move onto the stage. That's what keeps this production bright and stimulating. Audience presence matters even while babies are crying or curious children are wondering aloud, "Why is she doing that, Mommy?" Most impressive about the production are the high standards invested in family entertainment. Quality counts in Scottish Rite's Charlotte's Web, and if I were a wee girl, I'd be mesmerized. Then again, I already am.

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