Editors' pick

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

'

Editorial Review

‘Wardrobe’: The great escape
By Celia Wren
Monday, July 2, 2012

Suitcases hurtle through the air in a joyous game of catch. Dancers line up to mimic a locomotive, arms churning like wheels. A round of leapfrog frolics across a space that, moments before, shuddered beneath the sounds of the Blitz.

Even when it’s depicting an evacuation in World War II Britain -- as in the sequence described above -- the lyrical new stage adaptation of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” exudes a sense of adventurousness and wonder. And that seems apt for a dramatization of C.S. Lewis’s beloved fantasy novel, which tells of ordinary children who discover magic, danger and redemption on the far side of a piece of furniture. A project that is itself a kind of adventure, representing as it does the first collaboration between Imagination Stage and the Washington Ballet, this world premiere makes canny use of dance to conjure up a vision of mystical marvels, expansive possibilities and invigorating derring-do.

Not that the achievements are exclusively terpsichorean: The production, directed by Janet Stanford, also benefits from a stirring original score by Matthew Pierce and from nifty puppetry, including a marvelous version of the lion Aslan (picture an eight-foot-high, flame-colored kitten romping majestically through zero gravity). Eric Van Wyk, who devised the spare, effective set (including a snow-and-ice backdrop that morphs into flowers) is the puppet designer.

The puppets convey some key plot points in this artfully streamlined version of Lewis’s tale. (Stanford, Kathryn Chase Bryer, David Palmer and Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre are credited with the show’s concept; Stanford wrote the libretto.) In the first scene, puppet Luftwaffe planes evoke the Blitz, which forces the young siblings Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter to flee to a professor’s country house. A silvery unicorn puppet signals that Lucy has crossed through the wardrobe into Narnia, a kingdom condemned to perpetual winter by the evil White Witch -- perpetual, that is, until the self-sacrificing king Aslan returns.

Lewis’s novel brims with accounts of movement yielding to stillness and vice versa: A row of mothballed coats cedes to a faun scurrying through a snowfall; the White Witch turns living creatures to stone; a frozen river thaws as Aslan approaches. No wonder, then, that this adaptation gives so much scope to the choreography by Webre and Palmer (the ballet’s associate artistic director). Actors Justine Moral, Rafael Cuesta, Kate Guesman and Christopher Wilson play Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter in spoken-word scenes; but at other moments, four dancers assume the roles, eloquently conveying the characters’ youthful exuberance -- for instance, in a witty mealtime interlude that has the children doing quasi-handstands on a dining table. (Different dancers take the roles at different performances; Francesca Forcella, Daniel Savetta, Laura Chachich and Sam Lariviere played the children at the reviewed matinee). The theater-to-dance and dance-to-theater segues are fluid and elegant; sometimes two versions of a character appear in proximity, to dreamlike effect.

The dance speaks volumes about conflict and enchantment. At the reviewed performance, Morgann Rose brought menacing beauty to the White Witch (Sarah Beth Pfeifer voices the Witch’s lines); Dylan Keane’s crouches and rapacious leaps nailed the personality of the evil wolf Maugrim; and Robert Mulvey’s radiantly spinning Elf communicated the exhilaration of all Narnia as the Witch’s curses fail. Mulvey also lent endearing delicacy to the faun Tumnus, whose befriending of Lucy unfurls as a pas de deux anchored by the characters’ clasped hands.

Among the actors, Moral stands out for her gorgeous singing and her channeling of Lucy’s demure gutsiness; and Michael John Casey, who voices Aslan, aces the eccentricities of the Professor and the rodent-like mannerisms of Mr. Beaver. The able puppeteers include Tracy Ramsay and Betsy Rosen. Kathleen Geldard bolsters the characterizations with her costume designs, which include the sinister hoods and rags worn by the Witch’s slinking monster minions.

At press time Sunday evening, Imagination Stage was closed because of power outages, and its phone lines and Web site were down. Ticket holders are advised to call the theater’s hotline, 301-718-9521, for the latest information.

The production is a reminder that theater, as an art form, is a lot like Lucy’s wardrobe. As an audience member, you enter a confined space, only to discover -- if you’re lucky, as you are here -- a world of emotion and vivid excitement.

Suitcases hurtle through the air in a joyous game of catch. Dancers line up to mimic a locomotive, arms churning like wheels. A round of leapfrog frolics across a space that, moments before, shuddered beneath the sounds of the Blitz.

Even when it’s depicting an evacuation in World War II Britain -- as in the sequence described above -- the lyrical new stage adaptation of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” exudes a sense of adventurousness and wonder. And that seems apt for a dramatization of C.S. Lewis’s beloved fantasy novel, which tells of ordinary children who discover magic, danger and redemption on the far side of a piece of furniture. A project that is itself a kind of adventure, representing as it does the first collaboration between Imagination Stage and the Washington Ballet, this world premiere makes canny use of dance to conjure up a vision of mystical marvels, expansive possibilities and invigorating derring-do.

Not that the achievements are exclusively terpsichorean: The production, directed by Janet Stanford, also benefits from a stirring original score by Matthew Pierce and from nifty puppetry, including a marvelous version of the lion Aslan (picture an 8-foot-high, flame-colored kitten romping majestically through zero gravity). Eric Van Wyk, who devised the spare, effective set (including a snow-and-ice backdrop that morphs into flowers) is the puppet designer.

The puppets convey some key plot points in this artfully streamlined version of Lewis’s tale. (Stanford, Kathryn Chase Bryer, David Palmer and Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre are credited with the show’s concept; Stanford wrote the libretto.) In the first scene, puppet Luftwaffe planes evoke the Blitz, which forces the young siblings Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter to flee to a professor’s country house. A silvery unicorn puppet signals that Lucy has crossed through the wardrobe into Narnia, a kingdom condemned to perpetual winter by the evil White Witch -- perpetual, that is, until the self-sacrificing king Aslan returns.

Lewis’s novel brims with accounts of movement yielding to stillness and vice versa: A row of mothballed coats cedes to a faun scurrying through a snowfall; the White Witch turns living creatures to stone; a frozen river thaws as Aslan approaches. No wonder, then, that this new adaptation gives so much scope to the choreography by Webre and Palmer (the ballet’s associate artistic director). Actors Justine Moral, Rafael Cuesta, Kate Guesman and Christopher Wilson play Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter in spoken-word scenes; but at other moments, four dancers assume the roles, eloquently conveying the characters’ youthful exuberance -- for instance, in a witty mealtime interlude that has the children doing quasi-handstands on a dining table. (Different dancers take the roles at different performances; Francesca Forcella, Daniel Savetta, Laura Chachich and Sam Lariviere played the children at the reviewed matinee). The theater-to-dance and dance-to-theater segues are fluid and elegant; sometimes two versions of a character appear in proximity, to dreamlike effect.

The dance speaks volumes about conflict and enchantment. At the reviewed performance, Morgann Rose brought menacing beauty to the White Witch (Sarah Beth Pfeifer voices the Witch’s lines); Dylan Keane’s crouches and rapacious leaps nailed the personality of the evil wolf Maugrim; and Robert Mulvey’s radiantly spinning Elf communicated the exhilaration of all Narnia as the Witch’s curses fail. Mulvey also lent endearing delicacy to the faun Tumnus, whose befriending of Lucy unfurls as a pas de deux anchored by the characters’ clasped hands.

Among the actors, Moral stands out for her gorgeous singing and her channeling of Lucy’s demure gutsiness; and Michael John Casey, who voices Aslan, aces the eccentricities of the Professor and the rodent-like mannerisms of Mr. Beaver. The able puppeteers include Tracy Ramsay and Betsy Rosen. Kathleen Geldard bolsters the characterizations with her costume designs, which include the sinister hoods and rags worn by the Witch’s slinking monster minions. At presstime Sunday evening, Imagination Stage was closed because of power outages, and its phone lines and Web site were down. Ticket holders are advised to call the theater’s hotline, 301-718-9521 for the latest information.

The production is a reminder that theater, as an art form, is a lot like Lucy’s wardrobe. As an audience member, you enter a confined space, only to discover -- if you’re lucky, as you are here -- a world of emotion and vivid excitement.

PREVIEW: Making the king of the jungle majestic on stage
By Jessica Goldstein
Friday, June 8, 2012

Aslan leaps. He leaps like no lion could ever leap. Aslan is impossible.

He’s a puppet, this Aslan, though puppet designer Eric Van Wyk would “consider it a compliment if someone said it doesn’t look like a puppet.” So forget what you think about when you think about puppets, be they sock or foam or Muppet. This is Aslan, the righteous ruler of Narnia. He’s supposed to be majestic.

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. He had recently built the Jabberwocky for the Washington Ballet’s production of “Alice in Wonderland” and 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.