Puppet Aslan is all frame and flaming mane. His structure is exposed, his body made of mesh fabric beneath an external skeleton. The effect is something like a leaf, or a stained-glass window. He is massive, 9 feet long and 8 feet tall, but looks light and agile and, well, the right word is probably “feline.”
He’s the centerpiece of this rehearsal at the Washington Ballet for “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” a first-ever collaboration between the ballet company and Imagination Stage. Many characters are represented both by an Imagination Stage actor and a Washington Ballet dancer; the former handles the speaking and singing, the latter expresses emotion through movement.
Aslan seems especially golden against the gray-and-white backdrop of the dance studio. “In Edmund’s place, I offer myself,” booms Michael John Casey, the actor/puppeteer voicing Aslan. “My life for his.”
“Narnia is mine!” decrees the White Witch. “Now swear, and raise your right paw.”
Aslan does. He sits back on his haunches and lifts a paw. And then: “ROOOOOAAARRRR!”
He takes a mammoth leap forward, his 30 moving parts controlled by three actor/puppeteers — Betsy Rosen and Tracy Ramsay within him, like Jonah in the whale; Casey outside, rearing Aslan’s mighty head — who execute the choreography, pulling up his paws with hidden handles and bearing the weight of his body on child-carrier backpacks.
Aslan arcs through the air. The queen’s soldiers descend. He is attacked. He falls to the ground. He sprawls out on the floor. One assailant grabs Aslan’s tail and jerks it back — “Chong!” Van Wyk calls out to the aggressor. “Not so hard.”
The tugger releases the tail with a quick, out-of-character “Sorry!” as the White Queen circles behind the beast, lifts a dagger high above her head, and plunges it into Aslan’s heart.
* * *
When you think about it, of course Aslan is impossible.
It’s impossible that this 40-pound contraption made partly of Lycra, nylon string and bent aluminum poles could represent not just any lion but The Lion, Aslan, the mythological martyr. Aslan, who in the allegorical vision of C.S. Lewis is a stand-in for Jesus Christ. Aslan, who exists in that mystical space between human and animal, between earthly and ethereal.
“Aslan [is] quasi-spiritual,” said Van Wyk. “There’s something magical about him, something outside of normal time and space.”
Van Wyk’s research, like the puppet he designed, straddled fact and fantasy. He watched National Geographic videos and observed lions at a zoo. (“They were always sleeping,” he said. “But then you have a great view of their paws.”) He studied the artwork of Peter Paul Rubens and illustrator Arthur Rankin.
Janet Stanford, artistic director of Imagination Stage and this show’s librettist and lyricist, was inspired by a production of “War Horse” she saw at the National Theatre in London. “I just thought, every child should get to see this giant puppet,” she said. “I didn’t want to see a guy in tights trying to be Aslan.”
After reaching out to the South African company that designed the War Horse puppet (she was prohibited from hiring that company for cost and contractual reasons), Stanford contacted Van Wyk, who would later go on to build the Jabberwocky for the Washington Ballet’s production of “Alice in Wonderland.” He signed on both to build Aslan and do set design for the show, a production now peppered with puppetry throughout. “We’re referencing the fact that Narnia’s spilling through the cracks,” Van Wyk said.
Van Wyk started with an abstract sketch of Aslan and projected a transparency of the image on his makeshift canvas: a wall in his basement that he covered with white paper. On top of that, he layered transparencies outlining a lion’s anatomy. Then he traced, using one color of chalk for the real lion, another for the imaginary one, and a third for the hybrid, which was “what I started thinking of the puppet as,” said Van Wyk. “In between my wild, over-the-top sketch and a normal, down to the nuts and bolts, lion.”
After 180 hours of work, Van Wyk packed Aslan in his car and drove from his home in Wisconsin to the Washington Ballet studios in the District. It was three weeks before opening night, and there was still work to be done — as of mid-June, much of the fabric had yet to be applied to Aslan’s body — and choreography to master. “Let’s say that a dancer takes five minutes to figure out a move,” said Van Wyk. “I would say it takes triple that for Aslan, generally.”
Which is fitting, considering who Aslan is. “He’s wild,” said Van Wyk. “That was important in my head, that he was not easily tamed.”
* * *
The 10-minute lunch break is over and Aslan is still dead. Rosen and Ramsay slide their backpacks on and crumble to the floor. From where the audience sits, it is hard to make out Aslan’s face. Just his belly is visible, really. And the soft brown bottoms of his paws.
Then he starts to breathe. His chest moves, slowly at first, as he inhales and exhales, as Rosen and Ramsay inhale and exhale inside him. The music rises and so does he, shaking out one leg at a time, getting feeling back in his body.
Aslan stands all the way up on his hind legs and lets out a triumphant ROOOAAARR! He nuzzles Lucy and Susan Pevensie, who have witnessed his rebirth. It’s not possible, not even close, but that doesn’t matter because it’s happening anyway.
The scene is over. Aslan exits the stage, propelled as if by some otherworldly force, in giant, boundless leaps.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
June 20 - Aug. 12, at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda.www.imaginationstage.org. 301-280-1660.