Who would have thought that a wardrobe could contain a world? Who would have thought that four young children would be crowned kings and queens? And who would have thought that a few pieces of furniture, their dust-covers, and a handful of coats were all you needed to bring the past back to life?
The answer to the first two questions is C.S. Lewis. And clearly Ron Reed, creative director of Pacific Theatre and author of their stage version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is the answer to the third.
Reed has carefully set the play in 1962, when Lucy (Rebecca deBoer) and Peter (John Voth) revisit the spare room in the old Professor’s house, where the old wardrobe that once led to Narnia still stands. It isn’t long before they’re retelling each other the story, doing all the parts and shifting the room around to build the world, not unlike children at play who make-believe with what they have at hand.
Having seen another production of this script some years ago, I thought I knew what to expect. But there was a renewed magic this time around, which I attribute mostly to the venue. I previously saw it staged in a more traditional auditorium, whereas Pacific Theatre’s intimate “in the round” experience tends to draw an audience into the story. There’s a dimensionality possible here that gets lost in other performance spaces.
Despite the low-budget approach and only two actors, “minimalism” is not the word to describe this production. An entire world and a massive cast of characters is truly conjured up before our eyes, thanks to the ingenious creativity of the designers and the masterful skills of deBoer and Voth, our leads. A fur coat serves for Mr and Mrs Beaver; a couple of chairs and a trunk become the Witch’s sledge; and as for Aslan…well, let’s just say it’s about as simple and as humble as you can get. Big budgets are no match for an audience’s imagination, something Reed reminds us of in his show notes: “Narnia gets a hold on your heart because you help build it, bringing all your senses to bear…as you work with the creator to make a world.”
It’s an admirable philosophy for live theatre, whether fantasy or otherwise. And in this play it has another layer of significance. Lucy and Peter are not imagining their own world; they’re remembering what happened to them as children. At the same time, those of us who grew up with Narnia are remembering a story we’ve known since childhood while imagining the world suggested by the stage. The line between memory and imagination blurs, each serving as a doorway to the other as surely as a wardrobe is a doorway to a snowy wood.
For people who haven’t had a lifetime’s experience with C.S. Lewis’ classic tale, this intermingling of imagination and memory is no doubt going to be less potent, but through the playful cooperation of audience and actors it will surely be no less real.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, adapted by Ron Reed from C.S. Lewis’ novel and directed by Sarah Rodgers, runs at Pacific Theatre until December 29. Visit pacifictheatre.org for more information and to purchase tickets.