BWW Review: Alberta Theatre Projects Brings THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE to Life
The holiday season is a magical time for the theatre community. For many of them, there are children filling every seat, lights and decorations all over the lobby, extra performances to meet demand, and of course, a family-friendly show to delight all audiences.
Alberta Theatre Projects has brought the wintery wonderland of Narnia to the Calgary stage with their production of C.S. Lewis' classic tale: "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe." Under direction by Artistic Director Darcy Evans, the story follows four children (Peter, Susan, Lucy, and Edmund) as they travel through a wardrobe to the land of Narnia where an eternal winter has been sent by the White Witch, but rumors of a prophecy and the return of the King: Aslan, the Lion, send them on an adventure to save everyone. Set in two acts, the show is filled with plenty of action, magic, and words of wisdom - mostly delivered by the two-man puppet Aslan.
The set itself was beautifully designed by Hanne Loosen. The blues, greys, and whites filled the theatre with a wintery coldness without having to turn the temperature down. I liked that it was quite simple, no need for a million moving parts when the action and dialogue can show the passage of time and space. I wish that other aspects had come together to help show changes in location and weather but because the colours were so striking compared to the warm-toned theatre, there was no room for spring flowers to bring hope, or even a perilous storm to rage to its fullest extent.
Accompanying the set were a sound and lighting design, by Arvin Siegfried and Siobhán Sleath respectively, which were used to guide the audience. Though the lightning storm was a bit unexpected and jarring, the use of warm lights to represent the path or the wardrobe and the gentle musical themes that represented the characters that would cross the children' path, showed an understanding of the importance of technicality and collaboration in storytelling.
Indeed, the designers didn't make it difficult for me to step out of my adult mind and into the imaginative world of Narnia. Though the script had some questionable lines and the story itself, with its overt religious imagery, may have felt a bit heavy handed at times, the magic and characters are well established. Even if someone had little or no knowledge of the books or films that are a part of the story's canon, you could understand what was being asked of you as an audience member. The suspension of disbelief, as it were. And within that, were costumes, and actors, and technical designs that worked to build that world.
In addition to designing the set, Hanne Loosen also designed the costumes for this production. From the unicorn on stilts, to the beavers and wolves in their half human/half animal pieces, to the stunning (if a little uncomfortable) faun hooves, I saw, from most of the characters, what her intention was. I say most because there were some characters and pieces (like Father Christmas and the Witch's army) that I just didn't understand. However, Loosen's eye for the aesthetic was spot on - especially with characters like the White Witch or the subtle colour differences in the children's winter coats.
The children in the play have a lot they need to accept before they can embark on their adventure, and they were played by four young actors (not the same age as their characters but artists able to embody a younger mind). With Annabel Beames as Lucy the Valiant, Lucian-River Chauhan as Edmund the Just, Anna Dalgleish as Susan the Gentle, and Daniel Fong as Peter the Magnificent, the children were well-cast for the innocence and general willingness to dive into the unknown, and I acknowledge that accents might be difficult to maintain at the same level amidst the heat of battle.
Beames made a delightfully earnest Lucy, eager to help her friends and family but curious and a little loud at times. Chauhan's portrayal of Edmund was of an angry, petulant child - exactly how I imagine Edmund to be - though I would have loved to see him explore other colours of this character's journey. Dalgleish was just as her character Susan: gentle and understanding. I found she made a good leader of the group while her brother was off fighting the big battles. Of course, Fong lead the charge as the brave Peter. He is a wonderful fighter. All of his action sequences were smoothly executed and his fight against the White Witch had me on the edge my seat.
In a rather unique twist of fate, Brianna Johnston acts as both the fight director and the White Witch in this production. As she's involved in many of the fight sequences, I was impressed with the precision and dance-like fluidity that she designed (along with fight assistant Jesselle Laurén). Beyond that, I loved the mix of cruelty and cunning that she brought to the character. And her cape work was phenomenal. I appreciate a royal who will stop for a wardrobe change in the midst of battle. One should always be wearing a five-foot cape when facing one's mortal enemy. Joking aside, I thought Johnston commanded the stage exceptionally well.
As her counterpart in all ways, Aslan the Lion is an equally majestic creature but presented in a much different way. Using a puppet on loan from the Stratford Festival, the mighty lion is piloted by two actors (Bruce Horak and Jerod Blake) and voiced by comedian and creator Bruce Horak. Also playing the role of Father Christmas, Horak has taken on two essential characters in very different ways. Admittedly I left Father's Christmas' scene with a lot of confusion, but Aslan was so regal and so controlled. As a unit, they have a wonderful command of the puppet's movements and have created a constantly living creature. The voice that Horak used, gruff and boisterous, was perfect - especially for those moments of comedy that were able to show the humanity (as it were) of the character.
I loved that director Darcy Evans used a lot of the actor's natural comedic tendencies to build up the familial humor already imbedded in the story. There were a lot of moments that just made me smile, as I got caught up in these characters who may not have been human, but still had that goodness that we seek in humanity. Mr. and Mrs. Beaver (played by Kevin Rothery and Elinor Holt) weren't beavers, they were the married couple down the street who all the neigbourhood kids love to visit.
The mix of animalistic realism and humanity; that was my favourite part of this show.
And of course, the naivety in both villainous and heroic characters that kept the scenes from become too heavy and dark - although some things did head in that direction - was wonderfully placed. That said, I found the inconsistencies in what Narnians did and didn't know about the human world and how things were pronounced to be a little confusing. Particularly with the characters of Tumnus (played by Kristy Benz) and Fenris Ulf (played by David Sklar). I'm not sure if it was a script direction or a character choice, or a direction for the cute word confusions to be inconsistent but it was a minor inconvenience in the overall storytelling.
Of course, I'm an adult watching a family show that is meant to be a magical escape from the world; which is what I hope the children in the audience found. I don't think age has anything to do with two hours of whimsy and fun while sword fighting and petting giant lions. More than anything, this was a fun production. The design and colour scheme of the show were really well executed and the actors put their all into creating these beloved characters.
If you are looking for a fun holiday show that has a little bit of everything, this show is your best bet.
"The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" will be playing at the Martha Cohen Theatre until December 29th 2019. Tickets can be purchased at www.albertatheatreprojects.com.