Paul Love, Associate Toronto Critic
Having witnessed the atrocities of war as a boy growing up in Germany, author Michael Ende used his artistic talents to create works of fiction that whisk the reader happily away from the mundanity of the real world and into fantasy worlds. It is with his novel Die unendliche Geschichte — The Neverending Story — that Ende found his greatest success. The exciting tale of the land of Fantastica spawned, among other things, three movies, a television series, and a stage production adapted by Toronto-based playright David S. Craig, which is currently being produced as a part of the Stratford Festival’s 2019 season.
The Neverending Story is a classic quest story, with heroes, villains, helpers and guides, and important themes like love, hope, and belief in oneself. We are introduced to Bastian, a young boy who is struggling with the painful reality of his mother’s recent death and the effect it’s had on his father. When not suffering at home, Bastian suffers the relentless wrath of local bullies. The only solace he can find is within the pages of whatever book he happens to be reading. He cherishes each story greatly, wishing he could be a part of it. After a chance meeting with a bookseller, Bastian finds himself in possession of a very special book called The Neverending Story. After another run-in with the bullies, he finds himself in the school’s attic, and he easily convinces himself that there’s nothing to do but start reading. The story is about the magical world of Fantastica, which is filled with strange creatures, scary villains, and a hunter boy who is sent on a quest to save Fantastica’s benevolent leader, the Childlike Empress, and to stop an evil force known as the Nothing from destroying Fantastica.
Director Jillian Keiley creates an enchanting production, with an energized pace appropriate for a quest story—and one that will keep the young people in the audience riveted. (My eight-year-old son, Carter, spent most of the performance quite literally on the edge of his seat.) Under Ms. Keiley’s guidance, the scenes fold and swirl into each other, making for a show that is never predictable and maintains excitement throughout (the busy traffic scene was genius).
Designer Bretta Gerecke creates a real world that is appropriately cold and drab (as seen in the well-designed rolling sets of Bastian’s house and the school attic), with the exception of the bookseller’s shop — the closest thing to a waypoint between the real world and Fantastica — which is so warm, earthy, and gorgeously decorated, it should have its own spin-off production. The puppetry is where this show truly finds its magic. From the majesty of the great horse, Artax, to the adorable Urgl and Engywook, the hauntingly beautiful Ygramul, and, of course, the magic of Falkor the Luck Dragon, the creativity that went into making these wondrous creatures is what brings Fantastica to life. It is in conjunction with the powerful, effecting work of Lighting Designer Leigh Ann Vardy, the great atmospheric Sound Design of Don Ellis, and the gorgeous, modern musical soundscape created by Composer Hawksley Workman, that this show becomes a true feast for the senses.
It is in the performances that the story’s characters really come to life. Qasim Khan and Jake Runeckles, as our two main protagonists, Atreyu and Bastian, respectively, do a great job of portraying the exuberance, abandon, and wide-eyed wonder of young boys. Roy Lewis is absolutely magnetic in his short time on stage as the Bookseller. Andrew Robinson as Artax the Horse, Sean Arbuckle as Urgl and Engywonk, Kim Horsman as Morla the Turtle, Laura Condlln as Ygramul the Spider, and Rylan Wilkie as Falkor the Luck Dragon — with the help of anywhere from one to ten other performers per puppet — displayed such masterful, seemingly effortless puppetry, that I was easily lost in these characters, forgetting that the performers were even there.
I’ve always felt that one of the things that theatre could use more of is productions that cater to both adults and children, without pandering to either. The Stratford Festival’s production of The Neverending Story fills that void perfectly. Despite witnessing his very telling and enthusiastic standing ovation, I asked my son what he thought of the production. He described the show as “entrancing and performed very well,” and even added, “I didn’t want the intermission to happen because I was so captivated by the storyline.” I couldn’t agree more.
Photo of (L-R) Andrew Robinson as Artax the Horse, Qasim Khan as Atreyu, Laura Condlln as Chancellor of the Ivory Tower, and Roy Lewis as Cairon. Photo provided by Emily Cooper.
The Neverending Story is being staged until November 3rd, 2019 at the Avon Theatre, 99 Downie St., in Stratford, Ontario.
Showtimes are at 2:00 pm for matinees and 8:00 pm for evening shows, with special 12:30 pm matinees on certain Thursdays in September and October. For a complete list of show dates and times, visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.
The show is approximately 2 hours, with a 20-minute intermission.