Always Christmas, never winter

Pacific Theater downsizes Narnia onto black box stage 

Seems there's a witch in my wardrobe. Photo: Emily Cooper

Seasoned Santa stalkers know that the best gifts can often come in the smallest packages. Same goes for stage plays, as devotees of Pacific Theatre (PT) have learned. 

Over the years, artistic director Ron Reed has turned his modest arena stage into everything from a soccer pitch to a reform synagogue to Oxford's hallowed halls to the slums of Calcutta. But now, with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, he tops all, cramming the whole mythopoetic cosmos of Narnia into the confines of a black-box church-basement. 

To do so entails a lot of stage magic. C.S. Lewis' fantasy novel has a cast of thousands, including a quartet of English schoolchildren (the Pevensies), assorted dwarves, giants, talking trees, a flying lion, an ice witch with a Praetorian wolf-pack, a faun, a family of beavers and whole battalions of animal soldiers.

Yet the PT marquee lists just two players: Rebecca DeBoer and John Voth. Their performance is a marvel of versatility, inventiveness and sheer stamina. Between them they create the whole panoply of roles just by changing accents and body language.

Not to mention a lot of switched up overcoats, which is pretty much all that costume designer Sheila White has given them to work with. Remember, the whole action takes place in the titular wardrobe, after all.

Said wardrobe -- a carved, oaken armoire on rolling casters -- comprises the major component of designer Lauchlin Johnston's set. With that, a few chairs and a lamppost, he invites us to imagine an interdimensional wormhole, a fleeting sled, a sacrificial stone altar, an underground beaver lodge and a multi-spired ice castle, inter alia.

Props designer Dianna Lewis fills out the set furniture with assorted whips, swords, puddings and spoons, as needed. On the curtainless arena stage, lighting designer John Webber's moody chiaroscuro serves to demarcate one scene from another. Director Sarah Rogers pulls it all together with her impeccable blocking and pacing.

Still, it takes more than smart stagecraft to wrestle such an epic into a 100-minute stage play. PT magus Reed, in his role as script-writer, rises to the occasion. He's encased the whole sprawling saga in the rather thin frame story of a Christmas homecoming by the two eldest Pevensies, now grown into Oxbridge undergrads, Reminiscing about their magical childhood adventures, they stumble into the wardrobe only to find that Narnia's still in there, intact in all its gore and glory.

With this conceit, Reed moves the plot along, linking action scenes with the nostalgic Pevensies' narrative recitations, lifted chapter-and-verse from the novel's source text -- much to the delight of the many Narnia groupies in the audience. And no one's a more fervent groupie than Reed himself, who just a few months ago presented us a marathon, theology-laden docudrama all about the fraught friendship between C.S. Lewis and his fellow-fabulist J.R.R. Tolkien. 

This time Reed lays on the theology with a lighter, more child-friendly hand. As a critical focus group, I brought along my grandchildren (ages 10 and 12), with whom I'd read the novel a while back as a serialized bedtime story.

They easily picked up on the religious subtext -- the death and resurrection of a magical lion who sacrifices himself to redeem a traitorous, fallen, young Pevensie from the clutches of an ice witch. If anything, the allegory was even clearer in the compressed form of a stage play than in the original book.

But that's really an Easter story, the older child pointed out, yet this show, with its plummy/chummy Oxbridge narration, somehow comes off all Christmassy. The  10 year old agreed: the scary parts are scarier in the book, the ice a lot wintrier.

When we read it together, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe could scare the grandchildren awake nights. Onstage, it inspired them to crave hot chocolate at intermission and leave the church basement humming carols at the end. 

The focus group consensus, nevertheless: a charming seasonal entertainment, a performative tour de force and a triumph of stage ingenuity. It runs through December 29th.

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