Phantom Tollbooth livens stage

Welcome to the land of Dictionopolis, where the ministers are like living thesauruses, the people literally eat their words and the very mention of numbers will give King Azaz an aneurism.

“The Phantom Tollbooth” comes to Pullman Civic Theatre to chronicle the tale of young Milo in the Land of Wisdom. But ever since the kings of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis banished Princesses Rhyme and Reason, things have begun to get a little crazy.

“I describe it as a hero’s journey,” said director Penny Gonzales. “[Milo] doesn’t realize he’s a hero.”

The play is an adaptation of the book, which bears the same name, making the production a perfect storm of language, kids’ energy and the theater, Gonzales said.

As Milo treks across the land to save the princesses, he meets several quirky and fantastical characters who help him learn plenty of life lessons. Amongst these are Tock the Watch Dog, the Whether Man, and King Azaz’s brother the Mathmagecian, ruler of Digitolopis, where numbers come from.

“It is one big pun,” said Logos 11th grader Ethan Howell, who plays King Azaz. “Everything has a double meaning.”

There are so many double meanings, Gonzales and the cast sat down to discuss the script so everyone was aware of what they said onstage. Being a retired English teacher, the show is right up her alley.

Amongst the puns and tongue-in-cheek jokes, there are subtle messages sent by the characters such as the importance of synonyms and learning everyone eats their own words, as Milo learns during dinner with Azaz.

“It’s magical and good for children,” said Michael Coyle, who plays Tock and will be a senior at Pullman High in the fall.

Tock the Watch Dog plays on yet another pun, as he is a literal dog with a clock face on his chest. Coyle described his character as fairly put together compared to everyone else, which comes in handy since he helps Milo along when he can’t get it together.

Also accompanying Milo to save the princesses is the ever-erratic Humbug, played by Pullman High School junior Mae Sowards. Described by Sowards as a kiss-up and chronic liar, the Humbug ends up being the guide on Milo’s adventure.

“We’re pretty different,” Sowards said. “The Humbug is really kind of rude and kind of a ham.”

While it can be difficult to coordinate with the younger members of the cast, with the youngest being 7-going-on-8 and the oldest 17, Sowards said it’s been great seeing them learning and memorizing lines. She likes the feeling of a communal bond amongst the cast.

“I really like talking to all the actors,” Howell said. “It’s fun to have conversations with them.”

Howell described King Azaz as a high-energy character who is borderline bipolar. He hates everything about numbers while acting fanatic about letters. He’s less than impressed at Milo’s talent of counting to 1000, to the point where he shouts in rage.

Gonzales feels the subtle messages are the ultimate takeaway for the audience. She described the kids as talented yet direct-able, allowing their characters to be shaped out in the show.

Crazy yet full of wisdom, “The Phantom Tollbooth” will give Milo’s attitude toward learning a complete makeover. When asked if she would follow in Milo’s footsteps given the chance, Sowards admits that she would but may regret it afterwards.

“But I’d be like ‘Oh cool, I get to do something,’” she said. “And then I’d be like, ‘These people are really weird.’”

“The Phantom Tollbooth” plays at Pullman Civic Theatre, located behind Dissmore’s, from July 10-12 and 16-19. Show times are at 7:30 p.m. except on Sundays when the show starts at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12 online and $15 at the door, $10 for Sunday matinees.