By SHARON EBERSON
Surely you’ve at least heard of The Chronicles of Narnia, among the widely read books in any language. The fantasy series emerged from the pen of C.S. Lewis, a Christian scholar writing for the families of post-World War II England, as a thinly veiled New Testament reimagining.
The first of the published books, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, features a king of beasts who inspires with gentle encouragement and a mighty roar; an evil temptress with an icy heart; and an array of fantastical creatures and talking animals. All this, in the service of showing four young siblings their potential to be heroes, sparked by great adventures in the realm of Narnia.
To say that Lewis inspired many a beloved series to come would be an understatement.
Rachel Pfenningwerth and Eamonn McElfresh in Prime Stage Theatre’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. (Image by Laura Slovesko)]
Transforming a sweeping epic for the stage and a relatively small cast would seem a near impossible task. But Joseph Robinette’s adaptation, currently on sparkling display via Prime Stage Theatre, has polished the novel down to a manageable size.
Prime Stage, known for its productions of literary classics, has discovered the theatrical secret of such as The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe: With the sprinkling of stage magic and gathering of talented actors, audiences will find that filling in some of the blanks with their own imaginations is part of the fun.
During Saturday night’s show, the children in attendance remained seemingly rapt throughout, exhibiting the silence of those enchanted – in a good way, of course.
The production, directed by Wayne Brinda, goes by swiftly – an hour and 15 minutes, including an intermission – yet all the key elements of the story and characters are there.
Particularly enthralling was Rachel Pfenningwerth as the icy White Witch who rules over Narnia. With her pale makeup and silvery garments – one of many memorable costumes by Madeline Macek – she was the very vision of a beauty with a beastly heart. A temptress one minute, she easily could turn tyrant to anyone who would dare cross her, fearing only one a fateful prophecy: that four humans would one day usurp her as rulers of Narnia.
She’s so bad, we are told, that it is winter all year long, yet Christmas never comes.
As Aslan, the mighty lion who can change the fortunes of the realm and its inhabitants, Michael Barnett roars back to Prime Stage. He is appropriately towering under a thick mane, but fatherly to all who rally to his side – the righteous counterpart to the Witch’s tyranny.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
First into the mysterious wardrobe and on through its portal to Narnia is the youngest of the Pevensie children, Lucy (Molly Frontz). Her curiosity leads her into the icy realm, where she is met by a lamppost – a landmark of note – and a welcoming faun named Mr. Tumnus (Andrew Lesnett, a recent Point Park graduate.). The engaging actor imbues Tumnus with such warmth, that, like Lucy, we miss him when he is absent. The faun befriends Lucy, tells her of Narnia’s woes and falls victim to the Witch’s penchant for turning enemies into stone.
Eventually joining Lucy into Narnia are her brothers and sister, who at first are surprised that the usually reliable Lucy would come up with such a wild story. First to enter, on his own, is Edmund, played by the accomplished Eamonn McElfresh. He personifies the character’s outer smugness, hiding a host of insecurities – making Edmund easy prey for the White Witch.
She takes Edmund under her wing, as her aid in luring all four children to her, as a way to end them, and the prophecy..
Meanwhile, brave Peter and steadfast Susan (Jackson Conforti and Annabel Tew as the oldest Pevensie kids) join Lucy, and are quickly on a quest to find their brother.
The four young actors, all products of regional schools, fill their roles admirably, buoyed by such adept actors as Anthony Luisi and Caitlin Young, both endearing as Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, and, as the Witch’s henchman and delightfully grumpy Dwarf, scene-stealer Matt Henderson. Isaac Miller is professorial as the owner of the wardrobe and jolly as the familiar red-clad figure who bestows the Pevensie children with gifts to help them free Narnia from the Witch’s cruel reign.
For those unfamiliar with The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, there are high stakes for one and all – sacrifices to be made, redemption to be celebrated and a war to be won – all staged for maximum use of the New Hazlett stage.
The physical work of the other Narnia inhabitants – which includes fight scenes and dancing scenery onto and off the stage – kept the action moving apace. Even when there were a couple of glitches with scenic pieces on Saturday, everyone eased into that most British of demeanors, something C.S. Lewis himself might have employed in appreciation: They kept calm and carried on.
Prime Stage Theatre’s production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe continues Friday through Sunday, March 10-12, at the New Hazlett Theater on the North Side. Tickets and Information: https://primestage.com/events/lion-witch-wardrobe/.
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