Wilbur (Chris Yule) is a runt pig with legitimate fears of the slaughterhouse. Charlotte (Jackie Lamptey) is a spider with an ingenious plan to save him.
Three storytellers (Brad Beaton, Jill Bari Steinberg and Shannon Watson) introduce the story to us. Though they redeem themselves by breaking into song on occasion (accompanied by Beaton on guitar), the storytellers are unnecessary. In most cases, they merely describe the action as we see it onstage. This wouldn't be such a problem if they didn't appear to speak down to the audience (always a risky matter when dealing with audiences of children).
In fact, most of the performances of human characters in this show are far too saccharine. Their self-conscious expressions seem calibrated more for infants than the children in the audience.
Everything perks up when the play moves to the barnyard. As you would expect in a story of this kind, the animals are more complex and interesting than any of the humans. Best of all, the animals don't wear the fixed smiles of their human neighbors.
As the pig in peril, Chris Yule bounces around the stage with carefree abandon. He is often fearful, sometimes boastful, and always energetic. Children have no trouble identifying with Wilbur.
Jackie Lamptey adds a touch of sophistication to the barnyard. Early in her performance as Charlotte, there are subtle forebodings about her own mortality. This self-awareness is all the more powerful because it is not explicit in her dialogue.
The performances of the secondary animals are just as strong. As Templeton, Charles Wissinger is a rat with a constituency of one: himself. But if the price is right, this rodent in a zoot suit is willing to perform a good deed from time to time.
As the goose and the gander, Kristen Swanson and Mark Jones earn almost instant laughs from the audience. Encased in wool suits, K Strong and 7-year-old Josh Flannagan make a great comedy team as the sheep and her lamb.
Director Steve Perigard expertly handles the sensitive conclusion of the story. Overall, his direction is lively, but too often, the actors move from place to place in a stagy, set-piece manner.
In a story about seasons, it is appropriate that Ron Keller's playful scenery is full of autumn's colors. His large-scale sets include the charming Zuckerman barn and a Ferris wheel that looms over the county fair. There's also a nice piece of magic in his solution to creating spider webs on stage.
Emily Mason designed the costumes of the animals with enough whimsy to suggest the characters without distracting us from the performances. And her costumes do a nice job of locating the play in a believable rural community.
This production will appeal most to those people (both children and adults) who have read the book. And once you get past the annoying human beings, you'll find the life-affirming themes of E. B. White's story as touching as ever. S
Theatre IV's "Charlotte's Web" runs through Nov. 3 at the Empire Theater, 114 W. Broad St. Tickets cost $16-18 and can be purchased by calling 344-8040.
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