The Neverending Story is a tale about heroism in the face of despair, not plain old evil, a departure from ordinary quest tales, in which the villain is usually active and obvious, often embodied in one or more physical characters. Instead, Atreyu, the story's hero, must fight a passive, faceless enemy — the sweeping emptiness of The Nothing.
What can the force for good do to defeat such a foe? The answer, according to Lexington Children's Theatre's latest production of the Michael Ende tale, is to employ your imagination.
"At the core of the play lies the ability and need for imagination," Vivian Snipes says in her director's notes, which go on to explain how in that spirit of imagination, she encouraged her creative team to "be as inventive as possible."
If imagination is what will cure the aching vacancy of The Nothing, the LCT folks seem determined to singlehandedly combat it, because sumptuous imagination is this production's key success factor. That permission to embrace invention is apparent in nearly every aspect of the show.
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From Snipes' use of the complexly choreographed ensemble, which portrayed everything from spiders to water to the all-encompassing Nothing itself, to the synchronous pairing of Tony Hardin's "Fantastica" set design with Jerome Wills' sound design and composition, the one-hour play is packed with imagination and adventure from start to finish.
Joscelyne Oktabetz's costume designs particularly pique the fabric of the imagination, with clothing that feels expensive and otherworldly. The costume for the hero's horse, Artax, for instance, eschews cartoonish garb for a sophisticated metallic headpiece. Somehow this feels more regal, more magical, as Artax is supposed to be.
Terrence Thomas delivers a promising performance as Artax, believably loyal and brave. There are even a few moments of comedy between Artax and his rider, Atreyu, one of the show's most compelling relationships.
Will Swisher is strong in the hero's role, his character's verve and determination palpable. Pivotal scenes in his adventure are what thrust the plot, and the pacing, of the show forward. It's also when all of the technical and performance elements best showcase themselves in concert. These narrative mile markers are some of the production's finest moments — from Atreyu's escape from the spiders with the luck dragon Falcor (played with requisite enthusiasm and spark by Michael Overstreet) to the desolate loss of Artax in the swamps of sadness, an underwater escape.
The only hiccup in the show's first public performance was in the opening moments, when the cast did not project enough for audience members to easily catch and digest every line. It's laudable, however, that Snipes forgoes mikes and makes her actors project the old-fashioned way and, as the show took to its feat, those sound problems disappeared.
All in all, imagination is what wins out in this production, just like in fictional Fantastica.