Photo by Ramie Wikdahl
By Philip Pearce
I OPENED my program for the new MPC production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and learned that a recent trip to Bali has inspired director David Kersnar to offer “a Balinese infused Narnia.” Having read the book, seen the movie, watched several stage adaptations and even played a role in one, I cocked a critical eyebrow.
But as it turned out the gorgeous eastern costumes, the topeng mask dancing, the stylized hand-to-hand battles and the athletic energy of the cast are the best things about this Asian take on a very British classic.
As almost everyone knows, it’s about an English schoolgirl named Lucy, her sister and her two brothers who walk through a magic wardrobe into an enchanted land full of talking animals and a political conflict the four of them will help to settle. A wicked witch named Jadis has banished the noble lion king Aslan and Narnia is suffering perpetual Winter with no Christmas.
The MPC Theatre Company presents that initial bleak situation in a delightful dance with four bobble-headed creatures, like figures from a Balinese frieze, scattering snowflakes around the stage. Later, when the witch’s power begins to weaken, they reprise the number with showers of flower petals as the Spring thaw sets in.
It’s a show full of such bright and winning touches. There’s an exciting final battle fought with wooden cudgels between Aslan and his righteous supporters and the dark and demonic army of the Witch. There’s a big closing Balinese dance which hasn’t much to do with anything that’s happened before but is a spectacular show stopper. The production is diverting and beautiful to look at in such moments of spectacle and stylized conflict, but it sometimes falters in its primary task of telling a clear and coherent story.
Part of the problem is that Joseph Robinette’s adaptation aims at squeezing the whole plot into the currently popular format of 90 minutes with no intermission. To keep things moving and allow time for the next big chorus number, characters race through brief but important pieces of spoken narrative and, heaven help you if you don’t catch what they’re saying the first time around. Why, for instance, are these four suburban kids away from home and exploring an attic in some faraway house they’ve never visited before? Most of us watching from the Morgan Stock auditorium probably knew the answer to that before the curtain went up. But anyone unfamiliar with Lewis’ tale would have a hard time with this and other plot points that get brief, breathless gasps of speedy narration between dances, ceremonial occasions and fight sequences.
As the wicked White Witch, Uzo Ebo is dazzlingly costumed and a treat to watch in action but she has not yet realized that talking very loud at machine-gun speed doesn’t make you sound scary, it makes you sound scared.
Too many of this youthful and athletically skilled cast haven’t yet perfected the art of using their voices in ways that lure an audience into facts and developments of a story you are supposed to be telling them.
There are agreeable exceptions. John Radley as a hopeful Father Christmas riding a sleigh drawn by two charming tiny dogs named Piper and Hazel, is vigorous and coherent. Malakai Kimo Howard not only fights and dances with professional sparkle but presents Lucy’s elder brother Peter as a forceful and rounded character when the headlong race of the script gives him a chance.
Kristin Brewer is shrill and convincingly annoying as the brattish younger brother Edmund. Lucy (an attractive Natara Denga) and her sister Susan (the energetic Raven Llanto) have their finest hour in which they silently comfort the wounded Aslan before the big final battle.
Some of the casting is puzzling. I liked Brian Balistreri’s performance as the mournful Mister Tumnus, who welcomes Lucy into her alternative universe. But, try as he may, he is just too tall, forceful and muscular to be a believably pathetic scaredy-cat forest faun.
Then there is Lanier Fairchild in the commanding central role of Aslan. He plays him as a wise and philosophically reflective figure, but a figure physically just too small. Lewis’ book and Robinette’s adaptation both give Aslan one of the biggest advance build-ups a main character could ask for. No fault of the calm and committed Fairchild, but being so compact and wiry and a head shorter than every other main character on stage, he can never quite live up to all that advance hype.
If you go, you’ll be visually dazzled, never bored, but possibly at times confused if you haven’t read the book. MPC’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe continues on the Morgan Stock Stage through April 30th.