What does it mean to be a hero? Where do stories go when no one reads them? Why would a father pack a kale flax-seed bar in his kid’s school lunch? Those are some of the many questions posed in The Neverending Story, the wondrously fanciful and immersive stage adaptation of Michael Ende’s 1979 fantasy novel now at the NAC.
Premiering at the Stratford Festival last summer, the show cascades with a startling light design, extraordinary puppets and puppeteers, a fine cast and an abundance of enthusiasm and joy, all in service of a vivid, central thesis: That with imagination comes unbound, life-affirming freedom and that without it, meaning flickers out like so many dying stars.
Ende’s story has been adapted for the stage by playwright David S. Craig, whose trenchant eco-comedy Lysistrata and the Temple of Gaia we saw at Odyssey Theatre two years ago. Like Ende’s original and the 1984 film The NeverEnding Story, Craig’s stage adaptation follows one Bastian Balthazar Bux as he disappears into a fantasy book called The Neverending Story.
Bullied at school for his bookish ways, young Bastian (Jake Runeckles, reprising his role from Stratford with boyish strength and vulnerability) has lost his mother and lives alone with his dad who, although he loves his son, is all about practicality and reality, not to mention gross lunch surprises. Bastian, without knowing it, is on a quest to find his own, heroic self, which he does when he lets himself be swept away by the magical book.
As he reads, Bastian and his dull, limited world disappear and Fantastica, the world inside the book, explodes across the stage, fantastical creatures at every turn and the sky a blaze of stars unlike anything we’ve ever seen in our own, small galaxy. Director Jillian Keiley and designer Bretta Gerecke have loosed the reins on their own imaginations, just they did in Alice Through the Looking Glass at the NAC in 2014, and we, like Bastian, tumble into this new, spectacular world.
There, young Atreyu (Andrew Iles) reluctantly finds himself on a quest to save Fantastica and its Childlike Empress from the Nothing, an unseen force that is consuming stories and stars like the fearsome Langoliers gobbling up the past in Stephen King’s story of the same name.
It is, in most ways, a classic quest story, although brought up to date courtesy of stunning technical effects, including Leigh Ann Vardy’s other-worldly lighting design, Don Ellis’ sound and Hawksley Workman’s musical score.
Atreyu, tasked with battling his own fears as much as he’s tasked with overcoming exterior obstacles and saving Fantastica, encounters Ygramul, a massive, frightening spider with murderous, glowing eyes and stabbing poisonous legs, each operated by its own puppeteer.
He resists the Siren-like call of the singing trees, battles the werewolf Gmork, practically invisible but for his green, cage-like mask, and haggles with Morla, a crusty old turtle who’s seen it all and wants only to retreat back inside her shell of spinning, green discs so she can live out her days in the Swamp of Sadness.
He also buddies up with the perennially upbeat Falkor the Luck Dragon, whose face, unaccountably, looks like a bubble-nosed version of Thomas the Train.
And he learns a kind of horse sense from his towering, loyal mount Artax. Operated by five puppeteers, Artax stirs our hearts and fantasies and is every bit the technical and emotional equal of the equine stunner in War Horse that toured through the NAC a few years back.
In many cases, we can discern without difficulty some of the puppeteers. That makes perfect sense, since it underscores one of the story’s central themes: that imagination and reality are a continuum and that we hive them off in separate domains at our peril. Stories are dangerous, proclaims the werewolf like some kind of reality-obsessed demagogue, because with them, “humans feel free and when they feel free, they demand to be free.”
As you may have guessed, Bastian and Atreyu are, like that continuum between reality and imagination, a blend, and Atreyu’s imperfect heroism is, ultimately, Bastian’s. Each character is on a quest to find his own identity and to work his way through the existential challenge of his simultaneous insignificance and significance.
Tossing around words like “existential” and “significance” might sound overblown in recounting a play that includes a grouchy turtle and was attended, on opening night, by plenty of youngsters. That the show can so successfully contain multitudes is one more proof of the vital importance of imagination.
The Neverending Story is an NAC English Theatre production in association with the Stratford Festival. It was reviewed Friday and continues until Feb. 16. Tickets and information: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca