Dangling from black silks, Ayana Strutz contorts herself into the shape of an arachnid and spins around a barn-themed stage set.
Strutz’s metamorphosis is for her starring role as Charlotte in the Arden Theater Company’s production of Charlotte’s Web. Performing on Arden’s F. Otto Haas Stage, the theatrical adaptation of E. B. White’s childhood classic has been extended through Feb. 3.
As opposed to the typical perception of insects, Charlotte is not a creepy, goosebump-causing, shreek-stirring spider. Dressed in a simple costume of red and black webbed leggings and a cut-out shoulder black top, Strutz embodies the pre-Spiderman, awe-inspiring and beloved spider who saves Wilbur, a farm pig from the slaughterhouse.
“It’s a great book and show that adults can appreciate and children as well as,” said Strutz about the production being a holiday present for the entire family. “It’s a show for all.”
A recent graduate from the Illinois-based Actors Gymnasium, a professional circus training program, Stutz was excited for the opportunity to augment her acting and acrobatic skills. Playing Charlotte was also a chance to revisit the book she originally read in first grade.Now 25 years old, she is still struck by the complexity of Charlotte’s character and how one of life’s tiniest but most feared creatures becomes the hero in the classic tale.
“The role of Charlotte is a mystery to me, because why does she end up helping this pig? Most spiders just do their own thing in the corner and are closed off from the rest of the world,” Strutz analyzed. “Every show, I find different reasons as to why she would save this pig. Is it motherly love or does she have feelings for Wilbur? Every audience member interprets it differently too.”
Bringing air-defying life to this iconic character is only one of the feats Strutz is proud to showcase in Charlotte’s Web. Another is diversity.
Born in Japan to an African American U.S. military father and Japanese mother, Strutz and her family left for Honolulu, Hawaii when she was four. That was the same age Strutz began taking dance lessons, starting another type of journey into a lifelong passion for onstage performance.
“I remember growing up and not really having anyone to look up to on stage,” said Strutz, a fan of pioneering African-American ballet dancer Misty Copeland. “I would go to shows when I was a child and be like, ‘oh, they’re so talented.’ But I could never really relate or see myself doing the same thing. I always longed for a role model like that.”
Strutz has already become a “role model like that” for a number of girls who have come to see the show at the Arden.
“I got so teary eyed, because sometimes the girls will go, “oh, you have you poofy hair like me” or ‘you look like me,’” Strutz reflected of interactions she has had in the lobby after a performance. “I tell them simply, ‘you can do whatever you want. It doesn’t matter what you look like, just try your best and follow your dreams. There’s obstacles along the way, but try your best and just keep fighting for what you believe in.’”
Not as easy to respond, kids also asked questions circulating around the nature of the show’s ending. Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read the time-honored story,but Charlotte ultimately dies and Wilbur becomes a father figure to her babies.
“For most kids, Charlotte’s Web is one of their first introductions to death…I think it’s a good way to talk to your child about those harder things,” said Stutz. “Charlotte’s Web teaches that life is very fragile and it can be taken at any moment and you just have to cherish every day that you have on Earth. But even though Charlotte’s life might not have been as long, the friendship that she made with Wilbur lasts forever.”
Once Charlotte’s Web finishes, Strutz will return to her current residence in Chicago. Looking further down the tightrope road, Strutz hopes to earn a role, any role, even a part as one of the leaping gazelles, on Broadway in a production of The Lion King.
Charlotte’s Web| Now-Feb. 3. $20-$40. Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd St. ardentheatre.org/event/charlottes-web/2018-11-28/