One of the few reasons to go to the movies this summer was to eyeball the preview for a particular holiday release, an installment of an epic that will rival the Lord of the Rings series for metaphor-heavy drama and thrilling cinematography. No, not Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (in theaters Nov. 18) but The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe , the film adaptation of the first book of C.S. Lewis’ seven-volume series, The Chronicles of Narnia .
In a mere two minutes, the snippet invoked the story’s best qualities—mystery, adventure, prophecy, the struggle of good versus evil—everything that made (and makes) it such an obsessive must-read for 10-year-olds and their older peers. The Narnia series holds a fascination for adults as well, making the story a perfect choice for the Actors Co-op’s Whippersnapper Series of plays for young adults (and, ahem, older adults if they are so curious).
The show’s director Dennis Perkins is no stranger to the epic tale and its on-stage incarnations. He read the books in high school, a little later than usual, he admits, but he got tipped off to the stories by his younger sister (he was busy reading the Lord of the Rings series). He first directed the play in 1989 at the Bijou Theatre. It was his first paying gig as a director.
“For me it’s always been a favorite story,” says Perkins, whose first turn as a Whippersnapper director was for last year’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow . The ultimate message of Wardrobe , says Perkins, and the element that keeps him interested in the story after all these years, is contained in the play’s final line: “Good people always need good rulers, and that’s the deepest magic of all.” Never mind that the specific ruler referred to is Aslan, the majestic lion and leader of Narnia; the message applies to kingdoms of all kinds.
Although Lewis always denied that his story was strictly a Christian allegory, the allusions of life, death, loyalty and sacrifice are there. Perkins says neither Joseph Robinette’s adaptation nor the production dodges those metaphors.
“We don’t shy away from any of the religious connotations that you can take from the story. There’s no point,” he says. But as readers know, the tale’s inherent messages overcome religiosity. “When I think about the show, I think about honor and ethics and being free and free of tyranny,” Perkins says. “So it seems to me timely in lots of different ways.”
Wardrobe introduces the Pevensie orphans—Susan, Peter, Edmund and Lucy—who come to live with a mysterious professor in his gigantic mansion. During a game of hide and seek, Lucy climbs into an armoire. As she pushes through its many hanging fur coats, she stumbles into a snowy world known as Narnia. Her brothers and sisters soon follow.
Perkins won’t give away the trade secret the Co-op production team has invented to mastermind this visual trick, but he does say it’s a surprisingly simple device that’s never been tried at the Black Box Theatre before. “Our designer, Keith Kirkland, has come up with an interesting way of handling that,” Perkins says secretively, adding, perhaps to throw a curious questioner off the trail, “The sword fight is very exciting.”
While Whippersnapper productions appeal to audience members of all ages, Wardrobe comes with a warning for easily frightened viewers. Perkins says his show doesn’t whitewash the story’s most dramatic scenes, like the sword fight and the slaying of a main character. Like most fairytales, Wardrobe plumbs some dark and scary territory.
“This isn’t wishy-washy children’s theater,” Perkins attests. “But anybody who is comfortable reading the book will be fine with the play.”
That goes for the cast’s two 9-year-old actors as well—Liel Kirk, who plays Lucy, and Blake Johns, as Edmund. Rather than being disturbed, Perkins says, “They’re fascinated by what goes on.”
As a director of young actors, Perkins has a formative role in shaping their stage experience.
“They don’t come, in most cases, with any preconceived notions about what acting is about,” he says. “They’re very open to new experiences in that regard. You can feel like you’re not only bringing a production to life, but you’re helping them with other things, like character analysis, motivation and theme.” And, whether or not these youngsters grow up to become professional actors, that knowledge comes in handy. “Mostly, though, they have a lot of enthusiasm and are ready to learn.”
Perkins’ years of acting benefit his young cast members in specific ways, too. For instance, at one point in the story Edmund betrays his brother and sisters. Perkins wanted Blake Johns to consider why his character might do that, to seek motivation beyond the play’s text.
“He came back with a really well-thought-out action that made sense for the character,” says Perkins. “That’s when you know you’re helping them think about their characters. And that helps them down the road.”
While the new film version of Wardrobe will be filled with eye-popping digital effects from start to finish, its creators will meet with the most success by being faithful to story, not just relying on bells and whistles. But the intimacy of the Black Box Theatre and Perkins’ love for C.S. Lewis’ tale foretell an enchanting visit to Narnia for children and adults.
What: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe