BWW Review: First Stage's A WRINKLE IN TIME Coaxes the Imagination
"It was a dark and stormy night," begins Madeline L'Engle's 1962 Newberry Award winner -- an iconic start to an iconic piece of young adult literature. A Wrinkle in Time, it turns out, is a challenging story to tell in any medium other than its original form. Disney certainly struggled to tell it in their star-studded 2018 feature film. The stage play, adapted by John Glore for a 2010 debut, also proves tricky at times, but by and large, Milwaukee's First Stage is up to the challenge.
In quick summary, A Wrinkle in Time follows teenager Meg Murry, her younger brother Charles Wallce, and fellow teen Calvin O'Keefe on a fantastical journey through space and time -- a rescue mission for the Murrys' father and the whole of the universe. The three are guided across galaxies by the supernatural trio of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which.
In this cast of characters, three adult actors not only take on the roles of the magical guides, but each grown-up also plays two to three additional smaller parts. This way, the adult cast in this First Stage production remains quite small. Matt Daniels, arguably the most theatrical of the three, is marvelously unexpected as Mrs. Whatsit. At first the character is funny and eccentric, then later transforms into a mighty, towering being with a regal air and otherworldly cadence.
Elyse Edelman plays both Mrs. Who, the Murrys' mother, and a gentle giant by the name of Aunt Beast. Edelman seems to have the most fun with the character of Mrs. Who, cheerily twittering scientific mumbo jumbo to make your head spin. Parker Gaspar Muñoz takes on the part of Mrs. Which, who is merely a glowing orb of light crafted, so it seems, through clever use of a flashlight. For a ball of light, Muñoz's presence is plenty commanding.
These three are matched by our main child leads as well as en ensemble cast of eight kids. First Stage splits the young performers cast in two. The performance I saw featured the Time Cast, with Selma Rivera as Meg, Milo Elliott as Charles Wallace, and Liam Jeninga as Calvin. Elliott is a standout as Charles Wallace, who possesses a genius-level brain. Elliott makes that brain believable. He's also especially good at being super creepy when under the possession of a certain all-evil demon called It.
As Meg, Rivera captures the heroine's turbulent moods as well as her smarts. The character of Meg is a brainiac when it comes to math and science, and Rivera leaves you no doubt that she's as intellectual as the story claims. Jeninga's Calvin brings a solid fix of everyman energy to the trio -- good for the overall balance of dynamics.
This Wrinkle in Time also makes living, breathing parts of the lighting, sound, staging, and puppeteering. Director Jeff Frank has a talented crew assembled: Scenic Designer Martin McClendon, Costume Designer Samantha C. Jones, Lighting Designer Greg Hoffmann, Sound Designer Joe Cerqua, and Puppet Designer Marissa Ashlyn.
Put all of these together, and it makes for a dynamic piece of theater. The ensemble cast, shrouded in black, are used to push props and people about the stage. Whether our heroes are catapulting through space and time or confronting an immense, pulsating brain, the use of physical movement and intense lighting effects help propel the story. Simple physical props -- swaths of fabric, a wheeled platform -- fuel the imagination as these simple forms become magnificent creatures and evil specters.
Yet for all its inventive staging and good performances, this is a wordy show with lots of narration and brainy fast-talking. Not a show for very young children. And it was a little tough to hear at times. Also, the scale of this story is, quite literally, out of this world. Is the stage the right place for a tale as big as this?
Rose-colored glasses on: A Wrinkle in Time winds up being a good exercise in imagination. Due to the limitations of the stage, much of the visual beauty and ominousness of the worlds L'Engle created must been seen through one's own inner eye. Without a Disney-sized movie budget or the book's deluge of descriptive language, it was always going to be impossible to recreate those settings in our physical realm. But First Stage has met the challenge of L'Engle's material head-on. Although this isn't my favorite First Stage endeavor, if you go into their staging with a spirit of play and a mind readied to imagine, it will be worthy of your time.
Photo credit: Paul Ruffolo