Purple Crayon Players to produce ‘a magical performance’ with ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’


Evan Robinson-Johnson/The Daily Northwestern

“The Phantom Tollbooth” follows young Milo as he is whisked off to a series of escapades within a magical dimension. The Purple Crayon Players’ stage adaptation of the popular children’s novel will run Thursday through Saturday at Shanley Pavilion.

Daisy Conant, Assistant Arts & Entertainment Editor

The classic novel “The Phantom Tollbooth” may be familiar to Northwestern students who remember reading it in elementary school, but Communication senior Josh Essex wants to breathe a new sense of adventure into the story.

The Purple Crayon Players’ stage adaptation of “The Phantom Tollbooth” will run Thursday through Saturday at Shanley Pavilion. Essex, the director of the show, said the plot follows Milo — a young boy unmotivated by “anything and everything in the world” — as he is whisked off to a series of escapades within a magical dimension.

“The audience can expect to laugh out loud,” Essex said. “They can expect to see creatures that they wouldn’t see in their day-to-day life, and they can expect to have a good time in under an hour.”

Emma Raimi, who plays The Humbug, said she was initially surprised by the universal appeal of the play. Since “The Phantom Tollbooth” is intended for young audiences, she said she assumed the production would be “dumbed down.”

Instead, the Communication sophomore said the jokes are so witty and well-written that she finds herself stifling laughter even during rehearsals.

“It’s hard to keep a straight face, because (Essex’s) style of directing is … so true to the book,” Raimi said. “It’s magical not only for children but for adults.”

After the show finishes its winter run, the Purple Crayon Players will take the play on tour this spring. Tour manager Rachel Khutorsky said as of now, the production is scheduled to visit four elementary schools in Evanston/Skokie District 65.

Producing theater for young audiences and bringing shows on tour to local schools is the focal mission of Purple Crayon Players, Essex said. He explained that in choosing a production for this season, he wanted to tell a story centered around children taking initiative in their own lives.

“It’s important for kids to be able to see that they can take control of parts of their life while still being subjugated to the rules and regulations of the world,” Essex said. “We were looking for shows that dealt with those themes and ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ was the one that I enjoyed the most.”

Essex said the group strives to blend the magic and the reality of theater in this production, attempting to elucidate the processes of acting, directing and design for young and old audiences alike.

Weinberg freshman and set designer Sammy Koolik said he worked with Essex to forge an interactive backdrop for the play, creating an entire set made up of large foam blocks “similar to what you would play with when you were a child.” Koolik explained that the cast members rearrange the blocks throughout the play to create different settings, leaving the details of the setting up to the audience’s imagination.

“The big idea for this show is showing younger kids that theater is doable,” Koolik said. “We wanted to show exactly how we do it. The set is these blocks, but now we’re using it to suggest a forest or a city.”

Another distinct aspect of the show is the “in the round” staging, where the audience surrounds the stage from all angles.

Weinberg freshman Nathan Omprasadham, who plays a series of roles within the show, noted that having the performance in the round creates a unique experience because “there’s a million different ways you could see the show.”

“We try and perform the show in such a way that everyone sees little bits and pieces that make up the show,” Omprasadham said. “The rules of this world are insane and it takes many things you take for granted and flips them on their heads. I think that’s what makes it so whimsical, so magical — every turn is new.”

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