THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE
Though most adults have mercifully repressed the memory, being a child offered a crash course in frustration: an inexplicable and unpredictable world disappointed our cravings for instant gratification. It's not surprising then that kids love tales, like Hansel and Gretel and The NeverEnding Story, where they're in control, bravely subduing evil beings who are suspiciously similar to the bad grown-ups they know.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe--the first and best-known story from C.S. Lewis's Narnia Chronicles--makes heroes of four children, siblings who travel through an old, enchanted wardrobe into Narnia, a land where a cruel cold rules supreme because the evil White Witch has created a "winter without Christmas."
Children's Theatre's new 75-minute version, adapted by Joseph Robinette and featuring charming songs by Susan Low, remains faithful to its fine source. Led by brave Peter, the four "children of the prophecy" encounter a dithering beaver couple (Todd Yearton and Andrea Salloum), who provide reliable comic relief, and more crucially the lion Aslan (Eric Flynn Ruff), who with gruff kindliness ("Always remember to wash your sword") teaches them to summon the courage required to occupy the four thrones of Narnia. The enterprising youngsters break the curse of winter (a feat that seems eminently reasonable this time of year) and save their greedy brother Edmund (Anthony Pinizzotto) from bondage to the witch's Turkish delight. The girls (Heidi Ammon and Sarah Worthington) even rescue the murdered Aslan by making death work backward (that should make up for not knowing the answer in math class!).
The showdown with the wily witch (Kristin Finger) and her toady dwarf (Barbara Barrows, in a politically incorrect part), which featured screaming actors swooping down the aisles as devils, wowed the happy crowd of kids. Other highlights are the silhouettes that suggest the children's travel through the wardrobe, a visit from Father Christmas (who dispenses the weapons with which the kids will combat the evil one), and a sword fight between the intrepid Peter (a dashing Eric Vogt) and the vicious chief of the witch's secret police, Fenris Ulf (Roland Meyer, also fight choreographer).
The kids at the Historical Society listened intently, clapped loudly, and screamed at the demons with a sincerity that spoke for itself. Though not nearly as elaborate in its make-believe as Lifeline's 1986 production, Dana Low's staging finds action equivalents for Lewis's adventures and even makes room for his mysticism. Happily, the production is not so elaborate that too little is left to the kids' imaginations. Television provides that kind of overstimulation.
Children's Theatre Fantasy Orchard at the Chicago Historical Society
If Peter and his friends wage war on behalf of all repressed kids, Christopher Robin and his gang pursue similar but sillier goals. Turning to another children's classic, the Temporary Theatre Company (which fortunately has not lived up to its name) offers Winne-the-Pooh, a one-act with music (uncredited). A.A. Milne's original 1904 tale was a tribute to his son, Christopher Robin, and his favorite toy, a stuffed bear; Jay Geller's 45-minute staging unleashes all the fun of that endearing story.
A mischievous Christopher Robin (Bethany Anderson) joins the ever-curious, ever-hungry Pooh (Brian Beach), and they set off on a series of adventures. Like trying to ensnare the fierce Heffalump. And finding a missing tail that belongs to Eeyore (Nancy Heaton). Later the dour donkey has a bad birthday--and it's not helped when a distraught Piglet (Valerie Shull) offers him a busted balloon.
The scheme by which the animals try to stop Kanga from giving them baths is perhaps one plot too many; they kidnap baby Roo, hoping to force Kanga to leave the forest. Apart from the clutter this episode adds, it's not a pretty story; fortunately the animals' plot doesn't work anyway. In fact easily the worst thing that happens is that the gluttonous Pooh, a "bear of very little brain," gets his head stuck in a honey pot and is mistaken for the Heffalump. Happier events are chronicled by a cappella songs--among them a lullaby, Pooh's tribute to honey, and Piglet's to dirt.
The children in the audience were attentive, though some seemed confused by the characters, perhaps because the beige-based costumes tended to look alike. And considering that Christopher Robin provides the child's viewpoint, he might have played a bigger role; it may also demand too much of toddlers to switch from one story to another without resolving them one at a time. Still, it's hard to argue with a classic this reliable, or with the high spirits of this only too Temporary Theatre Company production.
Temporary Theatre Company at the Mayfair United Methodist Church