The story of Flora & Ulysses begins with a vacuum cleaner: a Ulysses Super-Suction Multi-Terrain 2000X, to be exact. One day, 10-year-old Flora Belle Buckman spots this large device on the lawn of her neighbor Tootie Tickham. The Ulysses 2000X is the crown jewel of vacuums, complete with indoor-outdoor capabilities. So once Tootie turns it on, it sucks up everything in sight, including a nearby squirrel. Flora immediately jumps to the rescue. She frees the squirrel from the belly of the vacuum and performs CPR—a technique she learned in “Terrible Things Can Happen to You!”, a series that runs in the back of her favorite superhero comic book, The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto!
Once the squirrel is revived, he is terribly hungry. And so he lifts the vacuum off the ground and shakes it until all the crumbs inside the machine fall into his mouth. Tootie is shocked, but Flora knows from The Amazing Incandesto that impossible things happen all the time. Flora also knows that this squirrel is no longer just an average squirrel—he’s a superhero. She names him Ulysses and takes him home with her.
At home, Flora hides Ulysses from her mother, Phyllis. Flora suspects that Phyllis, a romance novelist who knows nothing about superheroes, won’t understand Ulysses’ power. After all, Phyllis barely understands her own daughter. Flora feels closer to her father, George; he loves The Amazing Icandesto, too. But Phyllis and George are divorced, and so Flora only sees her father during scheduled visits.
That night, while Flora is sleeping, Ulysses sneaks downstairs in search of food. In the kitchen, he finds a bag of cheese puffs near Phyllis’ typewriter and devours them all. And then, Ulysses spies the keyboard…
Flora awakens the next morning to the sound of her mother. Phyllis is furious that her typewriter is covered in cheese dust and suspects that Flora is the culprit. What’s more, there’s a piece of paper in the typewriter that says: “Squirtel. I am. Ulysses. Born anew.” Flora is surprised and delighted: Ulysses can type! And he’s a budding poet at that! Later that day—while at the Donut World diner—Flora witnesses yet another of Ulysses’ powers: the ability to fly.
While a flying poet with super strength might seem unstoppable, Flora, an expert when it comes to comic books, knows that every superhero has an arch-nemesis. And she suspects that Ulysses’ arch-nemesis is Phyllis, who becomes unhinged after she sees the squirrel fly and type. So when Ulysses suddenly disappears in the middle of the night, Flora knows just who took him. In a panic, she sets out to save Ulysses and enlists the help of Tootie Tickham and William Spiver, Tootie’s great-nephew, along the way. But with time running out, and Flora still unsure of Ulysses’ whereabouts, it might be up to the little squirrel to save himself.
Flora & Ulysses, a Theatre for Young Audiences world-premiere production, is adapted from acclaimed children’s book author Kate DiCamillo’s Newbery Medal-winning novel of the same name. The story’s inspiration was drawn from two very different things: DiCamillo’s mother’s love of an Electrolux tank vacuum and a dead squirrel on the front steps of the author’s home. For DiCamillo, seeing the squirrel triggered what she calls the “marvelous what-if.” She began to imagine what might have happened if the squirrel didn’t die but was, instead, rescued—and Ulysses’ adventures began to take shape.
Although DiCamillo originally wrote Flora & Ulysses as a traditional novel for young readers, the book’s style evolved when artist K.G. Campbell took pieces of the text and refashioned them into comic book-style illustrations. Together, the charming and funny writing and the lively illustrations make the story of the young girl who lives for comics leap off the page. After reading the book in one sitting, playwright John Glore (who’s also SCR’s associate artistic director) recognized that Flora & Ulysses was perfect for the stage—and began writing the script straight away.
But that’s just the beginning of the journey. Bringing a production like Flora & Ulysses to life takes time, hard work and a whole host of creative people. (After all, staging a comic book-inspired play about a flying squirrel is no easy feat!) That’s where director Casey Stangl—who’s helmed a number of productions at SCR, including a TYA adaptation of Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane in 2015—as well as the team of talented designers and the fearless cast enter the picture.
In addition to Stangl, Flora & Ulysses’ creative team includes François-Pierre Couture (set design), Sara Ryung Clement (costume design), Josh Epstein (lighting design), Jeff Polunas (sound design), Kaitlyn Pietras (projection design) and Lynn Jeffries (puppet design and direction). The cast includes SCR veterans Celeste Den, Emily James, Rudy Martinez, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, Ann Noble and Jennifer Parsons, as well as Alex Suha, who makes his SCR debut in Flora & Ulysses.
While audiences are sure to delight in Flora & Ulysses’ comic-book adventures, wacky humor and moments of theatrical magic, it’s the play’s characters and simple life lessons that are bound to leave the biggest impression. For at its core, Flora & Ulysses isn’t really about the superheroes and villains found in comic books; it’s about the perfectly imperfect people of the real world—and learning to love and trust them. At the start of the play, Flora, whose parents are recently divorced, claims to be a “natural-born cynic.” She’s not so sure about love. But with the help of Ulysses, Flora learns that things aren’t always as simple as they seem at first glance—and neither is real love. After all, sometimes it’s confusing; sometimes it’s unfair; sometimes it’s even maddening. And yet real love is profound and completely unwavering. That discovery is the real adventure at the heart of Flora & Ulysses, and it’s the most exciting of them all.
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