The Neverending Story at The Stratford Festival – A Review

From left: Andrew Robinson as Artax the Horse, Qasim Khan as Atreyu, Laura Condlln as Chancellor of the Ivory Tower and Roy Lewis as Cairon in The Neverending Story. Photography by Emily Cooper. Courtesy The Stratford Festival.

Hats off to the Schulich family, whose obviously generous donations fund the production of children’s theatre at the Stratford Festival! In the 2019 season their largesse is bringing us The Neverending Story, adapted by David S. Craig from German writer Michael Ende’s popular book, at the downtown Avon Theatre.

Ende’s tale has its enthusiasts. I am not one of them, but director Jillian Keiley turns an empty, all-black stage into such a colorful swirl of effects that I found myself swept along. The ingenious design is by Bretta Gerecke with pinpoint lighting provided by Leigh Ann Vardy. Brad Cook and James Retter Duncan handled puppetry direction and movement.

The story (which actually does have an ending) tells the tale of Bastian, a nerdy and bullied kid who loves reading. When fleeing the daily onslaught of his tormentors he ducks into an antiquarian bookshop and, on an impulse, steals a very special book. Confronted in the street by a mysterious but unmistakably evil grown-up, he sequesters himself in his school’s attic and starts reading.

Like The Horse and His Boy at the Shaw Festival, the story within The Neverending Story tells of a quest. This one is by the young boy, Atreyu, through the land of Fantastica, which is under siege by a mysterious something or other called The Nothing, to find a cure for the Childlike Empress who is wasting away. I found the convoluted plot and the odd assortment of creatures and villains in Fanastica hard to sort through, kinda like German philosophy. The 900 or so preteens who surrounded me in the theatre had no such problems; they were rapt and obviously deeply engaged. When Bastian announced he was going to skip school, a small voice two rows ahead of me called out, “Oh no, don’t do that!”

Eventually, perhaps inevitably, Bastian is drawn into the action of the story, the characters start speaking to him, and he is the one who saves the Childlike Empress by giving her a new name. Why that works, I have no idea, but Ende’s overarching message about the joy and wonder of reading comes through loud and clear. The characters in the books we read do enter into our world and remain with us forever, so in a very important way their stories never end.

Jake Runekles is terrific as Bastian, as is Qasim Khan as Atreyu. There are impressive turns in small roles by Ijeoma Emesowum as the evil Maya and Mamie Zwettler as the adorable Childlike Empress. Sean Arbuckle distinguishes himself in multiple roles, most hilariously as the puppet master behind the diminutive Urgl and Engywook.

The rest of the cast, which includes actors who have played major roles on the Festival stage, are largely invisible, clad all in black in the fashion of Bunraku puppeteers so their bodies are seldom if ever visible. So many and varied are the effects they produce that it is hard to believe they are created by such a small company.

If you are an adult without a small child in tow you might want to give this show a pass. But if you have any interest in puppeteering specifically or theatre magic in general you just might want to take a peek.