Childsplay stages “The Phantom Tollbooth” at Tempe Center for the Arts

Childsplay, Phantom Tollbooth, Tempe Center for the Arts
“The Phantom Tollbooth” opens Childsplay’s 41st season on Sept. 17. It runs weekends through Oct. 15 at the Tempe Center for the Arts.

Life is totally boring for a boy named Milo — until a mysterious tollbooth suddenly appears in his room. He finds himself knee-deep in excitement, part of a great adventure in the Land of Wisdom. Now, along with the Humbug and Tock the Watchdog, he must bring Princesses Rhyme and Reason back to rescue the kingdom.

One thing’s for sure: Life is no longer humdrum.

“The Phantom Tollbooth” opens Childsplay’s 41st season on Sept. 17 and runs on weekends through Oct. 15 at the Tempe Center for the Arts.

Director Dwayne Hartford, who is also Childsplay’s artistic director, uses some imaginative ideas to bring the exploits of Tollbooth’s quirky characters to young audiences — among them puppets and fun set designs.

“I liked the idea of puppets to take the world of the play out of reality and into some other realm,” he says. “With puppets, we are able to play with scale and the laws of physics. Characters can fly; they can quickly appear and disappear. They can lift objects much larger than themselves.”

“Tollbooth” makes use of many kinds of puppets — hand puppets, rod puppets, Bunraku-style puppets, “even a full-body puppet/mask,” says Rebecca Akins, who was responsible for puppet and costume design. How did she know where to begin?

“My costume, mask and puppet design for ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ began, as do all theater-design projects, by serving the director’s vision,” she says. “Theater directors always have — in their mind’s eye — a strong sense of the way they’d like a production to look and feel. For ‘Tollbooth,’ Dwayne Hartford pointed his designers toward the wonderfully witty and ever-so-slightly creepy work of American writer and illustrator Edward Gorey.”

This, she says, was “a perfect artistic starting point for the puppets in ‘Tollbooth’.”

“Puppets will stimulate the audience’s imagination and help to create the fantasy worlds that Milo visits in a way that a costumed actor might not,” she adds.

Recommended for ages 6 and up, the play was written by Susan Nanus, based on the book of the same name by Norton Juster. Childplay’s production features Rudy Ramirez as Milo and Kate Haas, Debra K. Stevens, Tony Latham and Micah DeShazer as members of the ensemble.

In the midst of the magic and fun, Ramirez believes “The Phantom Tolbooth” also teaches an important lesson about spending time wisely. “It reminds me to be more creative and present whenever I can throughout my day,” he says.

Hartford echoes that thought: “We can have all the toys and games in the world and still be bored,” he says. “If we sit around waiting to be amused by something, we are wasting time that could be spent exploring new worlds, discovering new things, meeting new people. ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ encourages us to celebrate our minds, to be open to new ideas and to think for ourselves.”

Magic, fun and life lessons as well. What more could anyone ask?

If you go: Weekends Sept. 17-Oct. 15; 1 and 4 p.m. Saturdays; 1 p.m. most Sundays. Special Storybook Preview 4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 17. ASL performance 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 8. Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway. $12-$30. 480-350-2822 or