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Arts & Life

This Kansas City Puppet Theater's Classic December Show Is Not About Christmas

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Awaiting his final costume, the Mesner Puppet Theater's Little Prince puppet sits in a corner as Coleman Crenshaw and Hollis Wilhoit rehearse.

An aviator falls to earth and is marooned with his downed biplane in the Sahara. In the desert, he meets a mysterious prince who’s traveled to earth from a distant asteroid.

So begins the alternative to traditional holiday-themed fare this year from The Mesner Puppet Theater. Based on the novella written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in 1943, “The Little Prince” explores friendship and love and seeks to discover the truth beneath the surface.

“The story starts with the Aviator crashing in the Sahara Desert, and everything he experiences while he's there could be real or it could be his imagination,” said Director Erika Baker.

In the new production, Mesner Puppeteers will share the stage with actor Coleman Crenshaw, who plays the Aviator.

“All of the other characters the Aviator interacts with ... are puppets because they're part of this otherworldly experience he has while he's crashed in the desert,” said Baker, who remembered being mesmerized by the book as a child

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
During rehearsal, actor Coleman Crenshaw as The Aviator speaks to Hollis Wilhoit in the role of the Little Prince.

During early rehearsals at the troupe’s studio on Linwood Boulevard, puppeteer Hollis Wilhoit, who plays the Prince, remembered how his aunt read the book to him in French when he was a child.

“It does come across as a children’s story if you are a child, but the older you get, the more you dig out of this wonderful story,” Wilhoit said.

“So I’m hoping to bring a bit of the wonder I found in it when I was a kid and also the bit of existential exploration that I found in it as an adult.”

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Director Erika Baker helps the puppeteers block out a scene during an early rehearsal.

To create the illusion of a remote desert dreamscape, the production is moving from troupe’s rehearsal space at its studio on Linwood Boulevard to Union Station to take advantage of the 60-foot, star-filled dome of the Arvin Gottlieb Planetarium. Renovations to the planetarium completed last year brought high-tech projections of the night sky in 4K resolution to render a detailed, 360-degree views of the cosmos. 

Since founder Paul Mesner left the organization in July 2017,  the company has been forging new partnerships with organizations and venues like the Arvin Gottlieb Planetarium to enhance their productions and reach new audiences.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Coleman Crenshaw plays The Aviator.

Shawna Peña-Downing, who takes on multiple roles playing the Fox, the Snake and the Rose, said all of the creatures the Aviator encounters have something to offer.

“It's kind of that saying: There's people who are coming in and out of your life for a reason,” Peña-Downing said. “The Fox and the Snake have very amazing insightful things to give to The Little Prince when he encounters them, but those insightful things are for everyone to hear and understand.”

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Wilhoit operates The Little Prince puppet as Shawna Peña-Downing makes a slithery move with the Snake.

Baker said the best stories operate on multiple levels and don’t spell things out for children.

“I like stories that speak to kids as if they are intellectual beings," she said, "because they are little intellectual beings.”

The Mesner Puppet Theater presents "The Little Prince," Dec. 4-29 at The Arvin Gottlieb Planetarium, Union Station, 30 W. Pershing Rd., Kansas City, Missouri 64108.

Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @juliedenesha.

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