With its use of wordplay and clever symbolism, “The Phantom Tollbooth” is a spiritual cousin of sorts to “Alice in Wonderland” though, disappointingly, a far less famous literary work
Norton Juster, who wrote the book in 1961 while procrastinating from another book project, truly creates a wondrous world that sparks a child’s imagination. This is a world where people eat their words quite literally, where a spelling bee is literally a giant insect who spells words (fortunately this one is more dedicated to education than using her stinger), and when a character is on trial and asks for a short sentence, the judge mercifully grants him “I am” but then adds 6 million years for good measure.
Juster’s story follows a bored school child named Milo who finds a portal into another world ruled by two parallel kingdoms: King Azaz the Unabridged rules over Dictionopolis, the land of words, while his brother the Mathmagician rules over the land of numbers. Accompanied by a watchdog (key word: watch, he wears a giant clock) and a snooty insect called the Bah Humbug, Milo undergoes an intellectually trippy version of Joseph Campbell’s standard hero’s journey (the narrative arc most famously copied for “Star Wars”) where he has to rescue the princesses appropriately named Rhyme and Reason.
The stage adaptation (by Susan Nanus) allows for such a conceptually challenging book to really come to life. Because the book is dialogue-heavy, the words leap off the page and the rhythm (particularly with the five assistants to King Azaz who echo everything he says with a different synonym) allows younger audiences, who might not get every detail of the book, to get the jokes. Another joke that only works on stage: As the trio is fleeing from demons, they encounter a “census taker” who holds them up by asking them frivolous questions about their lives before sending them into a trance. The twist? It turns out he’s a malicious “SENSES” taker and he intends to strip them of their senses including their sense of purpose and sense of duty.
The Providence Players of Fairfax and the Young Hearts production, directed by Chip Gertzog, takes advantage of a cast diverse in ages to make this feel like a true reflection of the community and having older actors playing King Azaz (Bob Thompson) and the Mathmagician (Stuart Fischer) helps cement. Milo is played by 12-year-old Talia Cutler, a Kilmer Middle School student who has appeared in local productions and performed at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. According to assistant director Charlotte Gertzog (Chip’s daughter) the casting team looked for the best actor rather than consider gender and there’s little lost here.
The cast is capable all-around with a few highlights. Susan Kaplan, playing the spelling bee and the ever-present word snatcher, knows how to project to a younger audience while looking like she’s having fun with the part. Her nemesis, the Bah Humbug, Derek Bradley, has a wonderful theatricality.
The two-act play is presented economically with a combination of video screens and painted sets to provide a sense of depth to the visuals.
But this is a play that’s all about the words (and, in the second act, the numbers) and this is a cast that does a good enough job bringing those words to life, that it’s definitely worth seeing.