12/8/2019     NARNIA                                           Serenbe Playhouse



Four children escape the London Blitz of 1940, relocating to a large country estate.  While playing hide-and-seek (what else is one to do in large country estate?), the youngest slips into a wardrobe that proves to be the occasional portal to Narnia, a land of magic and danger.  Eventually, the four siblings find themselves the central figures in a prophecy that will free Narnia from the icy spell of the White Witch.  And thus begins the adventure that has captured the imaginations of children and adults since author C.S. Lewis first published it in 1950, an adventure that continued through six more novels.


Serenbe Playhouse has selected a heavily truncated version of the story by Jules Tasca that hits all the major plot points, keeping the play at a child-friendly 55 minutes.  A few forgettable songs are added that stop the story cold but are thankfully short.  Also thankfully, the incidental music (by Thomas Tierney) is spot-on and goes a long way to building mood and effect.   But, as in the Alliance Theatre’s 2016 family-friendly version, what's lost is the texture, the background, the religious/allegorical overtones, the thousands of little details that make the world "real" to readers of all ages.


Here, Serenbe has designed a “walk-through” immersive production that “fills in the gaps” created by the heavily-edited adaptation.  Starting by the Serenbe Inn roadside, we are drawn into the era by a pre-show radio

broadcast that gives us period music, news bulletins, and Serenbe sponsor “shout-outs” that truly set the stage for the escape-from-the blitz start to the story.  We follow the four children as they migrate to the manor that is their safe haven from the war, set outside the old barn some of us may remember from Oklahoma and Of Mice and Men.  In a brilliantly conceived device, young Lucy hides in a wardrobe, and we get to follow her, in a path that takes us through the dark barn filled with winter coats, only to have us emerge into a magical snow-filled space where the adventure in Narnia takes root, takes hold, and takes flight.


We get to follow the action as it goes from the lamppost to Tumnus’s cave, to the White Witch’s palace, to Aslan’s home and beyond.  It all ends with a beautifully choreographed battle highlighted by burning torches and the Witch’s bullwhip.  (I daresay, this production probably gives the Fire Marshall and the Equity Safety Inspector nightmares.)


This cast is very good at “vamping” until the audience “caches up” to their new location.  They introduce us to the Serenbe apprentices for the new season, and, if their work here is any indication, they will be a definite asset to the 2020 company.  The kids are played by Eleanor Rocha (Lucy), Brandon Smith (Edmund), Barry Westmoreland (Peter), and Rebekah Larsh (Susan).  They are very nicely supported by Micah Paterson (Tumnus and Beaver), Benedetto Robinson (Professor and Aslan), Megan Odell (a lithe and elegant White Stag), And Zuri Petteway (as a skillfully whip-cracking White Witch). Mr. Paterson and Ms. Odell also double as the Witch’s minion wolves, and they are a nasty pair indeed (nasty in a good way, of course).


On the tech side, the sets (by Estefania Perez Vera and Mark Warner) do a beautiful job of setting the scenes, telling the story, and accommodating the traveling audience (though smaller viewers may need to assume a shoulder-top position).  The costumes (by Cole Spivia) are attractive and period- and fantasy-friendly.  Fight Choreography (Jake Guinn) and overall direction (Joel Coady and Mr. Guinn) are tightly paced, action-packed, and designed to help kids navigate the story with ease (and parents to overlook/forgive the adaptation’s shortcomings with a sigh).


A few loose-wire mike glitches soured the sound design only a little, and, the lights, when they were apparent after dark, significantly added to the mood.


This last observation leads to a point that must be made – the role of darkness in the production,  Matinee and evening productions will, by necessity, be very different lighting-wise, and the 5:00 PM weekend shows (which is what I attended) have the benefit of “crossing the line” – greyish dusk light for the England scenes, encroaching darkness as we get to Narnia, full-fledged night as the witch’s control becomes more paramount.  I have to confess to “missing” the beautiful “out of darkness reveal” that highlighted the climax of The Snow Queen, but I also have to admit the process of darkening truly enhances this particular piece.  I only wish I had the calendar capacity (or gasoline budget) to come back for each time slot!  It’s definitely something to consider before wending your way Serenbe-ward.


So, this production needs to be taken with a few caveats.  Because of the time constraints, the children’s new-found martial skills are too sudden and advanced, their adoration of Aslan is uncomfortably quick (Stranger Danger, Kids.  Stranger Danger!), and all the required plot developments are too-too contrived for at least this viewer. When all is said and done, EVERYTHING happens within the 55-minute span of the play.  But the you-are-there intimacy, and the earnestness and skill of the young cast, make it a joy for youngsters encountering the story for the first time, and NOT a chore for their older-not-wiser attendants.


And that initial emergence into Narnia is pure Serenbe magic and is worth the journey.

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #serenbeNARNIA)


It should be noted that there are no programs for this production, but program information and cast bios can be found at http://www.serenbeplayhouse.com/narnia#about

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