When E. B. White published the children’s classic Charlotte’s Web in 1952, it became a best-selling favorite. The story of Wilbur, a pig destined to become bacon, and his friendship with Charlotte, a spider who is set on saving his life, is full of universal themes that are important for children and adults alike – and yes, “adults” includes college students.
“I chose this one because I think it’s a beautiful, touching story that many people can relate to,” director Christopher Clark said. “I just thought this would be a great opportunity to do something theatrical with a story that so many people love.”
And the something that was done is quite remarkable. Joseph Robinette’s stage adaptation, created under White’s direction, is traditionally performed with actors in animal costumes. What makes this particular production unique is that all of the animal characters are brought to life by puppetry.
A children’s story with puppets? It might sound like a turn-off to twenty-somethings, but quite the opposite is true. The way the puppets are constructed allows their mechanisms to be clearly visible and it is intriguing to watch the actors interact with their “other halves.” The puppeteers’ work alone makes attending the show worthwhile.
An integral part of this dynamic is the voice acting. Although the minimalistic puppets are carefully and precisely constructed – Wilbur, for instance, can blink – what brings them more to life than anything else is the voice acting. The strength of the production truly lies in the way the puppeteers express their characters.
“My voice was what connected me with Wilbur,” Jake Porter, who speaks for the pig, said. “It becomes part of you.”
Bekah Wilburn, who helps control Wilbur’s life-sized puppet, explained that she watched YouTube videos of pigs to get into characters. “I studied a lot of pig movement,” she said.
Wilbur and Charlotte, played by Jana Grass, are both clearly stand-outs in the cast. But quite a gem can be found in the Lamb, played by Margaret Huntington. When she read the script aloud for the first time after being cast, she said, “This little voice just came out of me.” Although a relatively minor character, she and the rat Templeton help add diversity and depth to the cast of animal characters. Jake Van Wagner, who plays Templeton, describes his character as “a little light-hearted, a little flamboyant.”
“You kind of look at the puppets like the humans are their spirits,” said Porter. And the cast began to feel connected to the animals they played.
Grass said that although she plays Charlotte, she is “terrified of spiders.” She was unsure of how to approach her character when she realized that “so is probably every kid in the audience.” She explained that as she has become attached to her character, she is no longer able to kill spiders and instead views them with some affection.
The human parts, though integral to the plot, are well-played but overshadowed by the puppets. This is especially true further into the story. Kelsey Kendall, who plays Fern, did, however, do a lot to carry the beginning of the show. Her character saves Wilbur from being executed on his first day of life and she adds a sense of childlike wonder to the cast. This helps the audience transition into viewing the puppets as real characters, not just as visual effects.
“The little kid in me just came out,” Kendall said. “It was like I was really in a farm and playing with animals.”
Another addition specific to this production is the inclusion of music. A four-piece band accompanies selections from the American songbook, including songs such as “Morning Has Broken” and “Come to the Fair.” An original song, using words from the play, has been added for when Charlotte spins her webs.
But beyond the actors, puppets and music, there is a profound story full of truth. Themes of friendship, caring and how even the smallest of creatures can make a difference are portrayed in tandem with the message that everyone must eventually die.
And the morals resonate. Emma Walters, a five-year-old in the opening night audience, stated, “My favorite part is when [Wilbur] took care of the baby eggs and three stayed.” If the message can be so clearly stated by one so young, then there is something special about the story.
“I think it goes really deep into the heart of everything,” said Porter. “I think we all grew up on this tale.”
Whether for some bonding time with a beloved child or for observing remarkable theatrical work, this production of Charlotte’s Web is an absorbing break from a world where animals don’t talk.