A WONDROUS ‘WEB’ DESIGNER AT WORK

charlottesRumson’s Matt Hughes, left, appears with Maureen Torsney-Weir, Rachel Brudner and (as Wilbur the Pig) Garrett Neergaard, in Two River Theater Company’s staging of CHARLOTTE’S WEB. (Photos by T. Charles Erickson)

By TOM CHESEK

If you see just one spider-themed stage production this season, let it be Charlotte’s Web.

Actually, that’s not fair to everyone’s favorite wallopin’ websnapper, Spider-man, who’s facing more than his usual share of adversity as he struggles to get his $60 million-plus  Broadway baby swinging. But if you’re on the lookout for something to take the kids to here in December — something a little different from the usual figgy pudding — there’s a fine family outing ready to serve, and it’s as close as your friendly neighborhood professional theater.

charlottetempletonAysan Celik channels Charlotte the Spider, and Doug Hara gets in touch with his inner Templeton, as CHARLOTTE’S WEB continues onstage through January 2.

Now onstage at Red Bank’s Two River Theater, Charlotte’s Web combines the quiet power and good-humored wonder of E.B. White’s classic novel for young readers with the trademark technical savvy of the Two River Theater Company (and by “technical” we mean just the right dollop of special effects, a whole lot of puppet power, and a great deal of human resources).

The production, under the direction of Philly-based Matt Pfeiffer, opened officially last Saturday night, having been advanced with a month-long One Book, One Community promotion — a kid-friendly campaign of book, craft and movie events that continues Thursday evening with a 6:30p reading by TRTC founding father Bob Rechnitz at NovelTeas. For the duration of the show’s engagement — running through January 2 with a handful of holidays off — the folks at the Bridge Avenue performing arts space are also asking attendees to donate items to a pet food drive, for the benefit of the animals sheltered at the Monmouth County SPCA.

In Joseph Robinette’s stage adaptation of Charlotte’s, it’s the animals in their matter-of-fact wit and wondrous wisdom who carry the day, although the human characters are very nice, if ever so slightly clueless. It’s a great troupe of players that brings Farmer Zuckerman’s barnyard bestiary to life, aided by a set of custom-crafted hand puppet creations by Aaron Cromie.

The designer, whose sad and funny puppet people brought a new dimension to Two River’s extraordinary 2007 production of Our Town, opts here for simpler creatures of foam that are voiced and manipulated (as components of Lisa Zinni‘s costumes) by a cast that includes Garrett Neergaard as Wilbur, the sincere little pig who’s spared from the butcher block thanks to the timely intervention and miraculous talents of barn spider Charlotte (gracefully performed by Aysan Celik).

Nearly making off with the show as wily Templeton the Rat is frequent Two River actor Doug Hara, who starred as Charlie Brown for director Pfeiffer last year and who excelled in the Cromie-ized Our Town. The agile Hara’s furtive rodent (who could teach the powers that be a thing or two about the art of the deal) made an immediate hit with the youngest members of the audience — as did bushy-bearded, bellowing John Ahlin (from Broadway’s Journey’s End and Waiting for Godot), whose flabbergasted “freakouts” as Mr. Zuckerman are chased with his turns as an elder sheep and a rather large hog.

Also keeping pace with the accomplished adults in the cast are a pair of younger Monmouth County actors — Rachel Brudner of Howell as Wilbur’s sympathetic farm-girl friend Fern, and 13-year-old Rumsonite Matt Hughes (who’s performed previously at Two River, as well as with Rockit For Kids at the Basie) as her brother Avery.

Boasting a multi-level set by David P. Gordon and some nifty animated projections by Justin Smiley, Charlotte’s Web does its job on what is surely a microscopic fraction of Spidey’s supersized budget. But at the heart of this smart, non-preachy “children’s show” is a tale that has much to say about life in all its various delights and cruelties, and about friendships that take shape even where you barely realize what just happened. At the very least, you’ll learn a lot about pigs, spiders and such — and you can reserve tickets by taking it here.

Adding to the recent excitement at TRTC is the arrival of a new associate artistic director (editor and communications specialist Stephanie Coen), who was present at the building’s black-box Marion Huber Theater last Thursday for a preview of an ambitious new series. A group of students and alumni of the Musical Theater Writing program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts (including Tony winner B.D. Wong, who fans of Law and Order Special Victims Unit will recognize as police psychologist Dr. Huang) performed a selection of alternately funny and moving songs from eleven musical works in progress, among them a new take on A Clockwork Orange and the fact-based frontier tale The Ballad of Little Jo.

The brainchild of TRTC’s artistic director John Dias, the projected series of staged reading workshop events will partner with the Tisch program to develop new and unseen works for the stage, and present them publicly for the first time here in Red Bank. A formal schedule, slated to begin in January 2011, will be announced right after the holidays if not sooner — and chances are good you’ll read it here first on redbankgreen.