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Theatre Reviews Stratford Festival 2019: The Neverending Story is a triumph of theatrical imagination

The Neverending Story is a story about the power and peril of imagination – so it’s fitting that it is receiving the most imaginative staging of any show at the Stratford Festival so far this season.

Emily Cooper

  • Title: The Neverending Story
  • Written by: David S. Craig
  • Director: Jillian Keiley
  • Actors: Jake Runeckles, Qasim Khan and Sean Arbuckle
  • Company: Stratford Festival in association with the National Arts Centre
  • Venue: Avon Theatre
  • City: Stratford, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to Nov. 3, 2019

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The Neverending Story is a story about the power and peril of imagination – so it’s fitting that it is receiving the most imaginative staging of any show at the Stratford Festival so far this season.

Director Jillian Keiley and designer Bretta Gerecke have created a dazzling glow-in-the-dark vision of a metafictional land that delights anew each time another creatively crafted creature walks or floats on stage.

Canadian playwright David S. Craig (best known for Danny, King of the Basement) wrote this adaptation of Michael Ende’s 1979 fantasy book for the Seattle Children’s Theatre in 2007, taking his cue on how to end it (spoiler: It does end) from the popular 1984 film version.

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Bastian (Jake Runeckles), a bookish and bereaved boy who has lost his mother, escapes a pack of bullies one day by running into a bookstore, where he discovers a mysterious tome called The Neverending Story. After stealing it, he hides in the attic of his school to read it. The tale he discovers in its pages is a hero’s journey that takes place in a world of seemingly self-aware stories called Fantastica.

Young hunter Atreyu (Qasim Khan) and his horse, Artax (voiced by Andrew Robinson), are dispatched on a quest to find a cure for the Childlike Empress, who is dying as a formless entity called The Nothing is swallowing up the land she rules.

Young hunter Atreyu (Qasim Khan) and his horse, Artax (voiced by Andrew Robinson), are dispatched on a quest to find a cure for the Childlike Empress, who is dying as a formless entity called The Nothing is swallowing up the land she rules.

Emily Cooper

A sense of encroaching emptiness runs throughout Keiley’s production – which takes place in a black void in front of a pixel wall, a screen-like piece of technology that essentially functions like a giant Lite-Brite. It provides a backdrop of stars that slowly disappear over the course of the show.

When Atreyu is riding the galloping Artax or, later, flies on the “luck dragon” Falkor, the pixel stars behind him and the puppets swirl about thrillingly to suggest movement.

The fantastic beasts Gerecke has designed are mostly conjured by packs of actors, one providing voice, the rest manipulating the body.

Morla the Turtle is performed by 11 actors who lift up gleaming green garbage-pail lids to create its giant shell. Ygramul the Spider is played by nine actors, eight moving its colourful legs and one holding its head, an umbrella with scary red eyes and fangs. (Brad Cook is the movement and puppetry director, and James Retter Duncan is credited as puppet consultant.)

Morla the Turtle is performed by 11 actors who lift up gleaming green garbage-pail lids to create its giant shell.

Emily Cooper

More regular, but no less cleverly deployed, are the pair of puppets used to depict the married gnome couple Urgl and Engywook. One is mounted on each leg of actor Sean Arbuckle, who voices and operates them both as they squabble – a visual “my other half” gag. (The amusing Arbuckle, who also plays the werewolf Gmork, seems to be having a great time, and his enthusiasm for the show is infectious.)

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Even the real world that Bastian runs away from is cool to look at, with an early chase sequence involving actors running through the dark holding deconstructed stoplights and long poles with lights on each end to depict approaching cars. (The skilfully executed lighting is by Leigh Ann Vardy.)

This is design at its most theatrical: Visuals that startle at first, then tickle as you figure out how they are pulled off and what everyday objects they are made of.

It goes well with the plot, which sees Bastian not only reading The Neverending Story, but seemingly sucked into it. Runeckles and Khan, who both give sweet performances, are styled similarly to suggest that Bastian is imagining himself as the hero Atreyu as he hides from his real-world challenges.

For those who grew up with the movie on VHS (and now may have their own kids to bring to the theatre), Keiley has shamelessly tapped into that eighties nostalgia by commissioning a fun electro-pop soundtrack (complete with theme song) from Hawksley Workman that draws on the sounds of that era’s video games. Likewise, there are visual elements that nod at Tron and the pixelation of the past.

Director Jillian Keiley and designer Bretta Gerecke have created a dazzling glow-in-the-dark vision of a metafictional land that delights anew each time another creatively crafted creature walks or floats on stage.

Emily Cooper

In recent years, both the Stratford Festival and Shaw Festival have been trying to capture the family market by staging well-known fantasy stories by Robert Louis Stevenson, Lewis Carroll and C.S. Lewis, but this is the first production that I haven’t found a bit trying as an adult spectator.

Keiley, who is the artistic director of the English Theatre at the National Arts Centre, has put together a show that should get kids excited about theatre with its combination of old-fashioned and newfangled. When it closes in Stratford in November, it travels to the NAC in Ottawa, where it will play from Jan. 29 to Feb. 15.

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