Students delve into classic children's book
by: Jim Clark Katy Petersen as The Humbug, from left, Shailee Clark as Tock the Watchdog and Ben Morris as Milo are confronted by demons in Reynolds Middle School’s production of ‘The Phantom Tollbooth.’

The advanced theater students at Reynolds Middle School are preparing to take audiences to a magical land of words and numbers, demons and princesses, reason and fantasy, ignorance and knowledge.

It's not Wonderland but the Kingdom of Wisdom. Instead of a rabbit hole, the kingdom is accessible by driving through a tollbooth - just try not to get lost in the Doldrums on the way.

It's all part of Reynolds Middle School Theater's production of 'The Phantom Tollbooth,' with performances set for 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, Feb. 10-11 and 17-18.

Based on Norton Juster's classic 1961 children's book, the two-act play is about Milo, a bored and detached young boy who receives the unusual gift of a tollbooth, along with a map of a mysterious land. Milo is mildly curious, so he gets into his battery-powered toy car and drives through the tollbooth, which turns out to be a portal into the Kingdom of Wisdom.

Milo discovers that the kingdom is suffering from a feud between the rulers of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis. Along with two companions, Milo begins a journey to restore harmony to the land by rescuing Princess Sweet Rhyme and Princess Pure Reason from banishment.

The play features 31 actors and a crew of six.

Laura Steenson, theater teacher, says the play is almost entirely student-driven in that they are handling their own costumes, the lighting and sound, scene changes and makeup. The students even painted the sets for the play's various locales such as the Mountains of Ignorance and the Digitopolis number mines, she says.

Steenson says the students started working on the play in early December. They have worked countless hours after school and on most Saturdays, she says.

A boy and his dog

Seventh-grader Ben Morris plays the lead role of Milo. His 13th birthday will coincide with the play's opening night on Feb. 10.

'Milo starts off as a bored boy who doesn't know what to do with himself,' Ben says about his character. During his adventure, Milo discovers 'that there's more to life than being bored' and makes many new friends.

'He becomes a more interesting person by the end of the play,' Ben adds.

Ben says his mother - who is sewing some of the costumes for the play - read 'The Phantom Tollbooth' to him when he was 5. He says he recently read the book to familiarize himself with Milo and his adventures.

Noting that he didn't expect to get the role when he auditioned, Ben says Milo appears in almost every scene and 'at least three-fourths of the script is all my lines.'

Shailee Clark, an eighth-grader, plays Tock, a canine 'watchdog' who joins Milo on his journey to rescue the princesses. Shailee says she really liked the character when she read the book, but she decided to audition for the role of the Spelling Bee.

'I didn't think I'd get the part, so I auditioned for a smaller role,' Shailee says. 'When I ended up getting the part (of Tock) I was really happy.'

Shailee says Tock starts out as a character who 'doesn't like to waste time,' but by the end of the play he becomes a more relaxed character. She says she spent quite a bit of time learning and memorizing Tock's monologues.

'I don't talk a lot, but when I do, it's a big, long speaking part,' she says.

Although Jules Feiffer's illustrations for the book depict Tock as a giant brown dog, Shailee says they had trouble finding the fabric for the costume, so her Tock will be a spotted Dalmatian.

The way with words

The book is known for its humorous and clever use of puns, literal interpretations of idioms and strange characters. Steenson says many of those elements such as the Road to Expectations, a Dodecahedron with 12 faces and the Senses Taker remain in the play.

'The nice thing is that young kids will like it because of the fantasy and the crazy characters with the crazy costumes,' Steenson says. 'Older kids and parents will like it because of the wordplay and puns.'

Even many of the actors have said, 'Oh! I get it now,' during rehearsals, she says.

Ben says that while some people may not fully understand the play's puns and jokes until afterward, people who have read the book will remember and appreciate them.

Shailee says the play will be a delight for fans of the book and for those who haven't read it.

'It's for young kids and grown-ups, too,' she says.

If you go

What: 'The Phantom Tollbooth'

Who: Reynolds Middle School Theater, produced by special arrangement with Samuel French Inc.

When: 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, Feb. 10-11 and 17-18.

Where: Reynolds Middle School Theater, 1200 N.E. 201st Ave., Fairview

Cost: $5 for adults, $4 for students and seniors and $3 for Reynolds Middle students with a gold-level honor card. VIP packages are $10

Info: Call 503-665-8166, ext. 3584.

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