Shaw Festival

Shaw kicks off with a Narnia prequel and a theater lover’s comedy



Kyle Blair as Aslan with the cast of THE MAGICIAN'S NEPHEW

Photos by Emily Cooper

 

The Magician’s Nephew

By C. S. Lewis, adapted for the stage by Michael O’Brien
Director: Tim Carroll
Starring: Travis Seetoo, Vanessa Sears, Deborah Hay, Kyle Blair, and Steven Sutcliffe
Running: Through October 13 at the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

 

It’s tricky trying to assess a prequel: is it enjoyable because it’s fun to see the origin story of beloved characters or because it’s actually a compelling story on its own? Having neither read nor seen a single Narnia product, I might be the worst person to judge the series prequel, The Magician’s Nephew—or the best.

 

This show is full of classic Tim Carroll imagination; he takes the boxes from moving day and uses them to create walls and bridges and doors. Likewise, nearly every prop and setpiece, from animal faces to full-grown trees, is devised from cardboard and paper. The fifteen-member ensemble’s physical theater is graceful and specific, and the impressive, magical effect is further aided by Kevin Lamotte’s stunning lighting and Cameron Davis’ projections. Travis Seetoo and Vanessa Sears turn in believable, childlike performances, and Deborah Hay and Steven Sutcliffe are pitch perfect in their comic presentation.

 

All of this helps deflect from a premise—two children sharing a dream—that isn’t nearly as imaginative. In short, through his uncle’s magic, Digory and friend Polly find themselves exploring new worlds, ultimately landing in Narnia and accidentally dragging an evil queen along with them. It takes a lot of exposition to get the story going, but, even when it does, it never amounts to much more than high fantasy without any real stakes. This becomes particularly evident in Act II; because no goals were ever clearly articulated in Act I, Act II leaves the characters meandering along in a muddy narrative. The late introduction of some plot points only underscores the poor dramatic arc. Even the evil queen Jadis is more nuisance than antagonist; it’s hard to create obstacles to a nonexistent goal.

 

More than that, we don’t get to see the Narnia creation story; it, and Aslan the lion, exist before Digory and Polly discover them. By contrast, a prequel like Shaw’s recent Peter and the Starcatcher—which is clever in showing us how the Lost Boys, Captain Hook, the crocodile, etc. came to be—emerges as far superior in both creating clever, “aha-inducing” origins and delivering a stand-alone tale with its own stakes and delights. The Magician’s Nephew, unfortunately, feels very much like what it purports to be: someone’s dream narration, complete with the attendant confusions and lapses in logic. Not having read the novel, it’s hard to say if the problem is with the source material or the adaptation.

 

All this said, the children at the student matinee seemed to delight in the recognition of this world, its characters, and the aforementioned magical production values. Further, a preshow participation workshop created opportunities for them to sing, be subjects in the worlds, pass the magic apple through their row, and create sound effects; all of these things made them part of the production and the magic of theater. This is also a credit to Shaw artistic director Carroll.

 

I came away from The Magician’s Nephew feeling that I had watched a beautiful, magical fantasy, but feeling very much like knowledge of Narnia was a significant enhancement to the experience, and I was in no way this show’s target audience.

 

Call 1-800-SHAW or visit shawfest.com for information on current productions, tickets, and more.

 


Fiona Byrne as She and Martin Happer as He in Stage Kiss

 

Stage Kiss

By Sarah Ruhl
Director: Anita Rochon
Starring: Fiona Byrne and Martin Happer
Running: Through September 1 at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario

 

Art imitates life. In Stage Kiss, playwright Sara Ruhl digs deep into that idea, then flips it back to “life imitates art” and back again in an accessible comedy that pokes fun at theater as it explores the fine line between simulated emotions and the real thing. Depending on your perspective, the imbalance in favor of the former is either welcome or frustrating.

 

In other words, the play spends a lot of time showing audiences a version of what happens in the making of theater, often with comic exaggeration. There are moments of high comedy recognizable to all, but also plenty of insider jokes that only somebody who’s been backstage or in a rehearsal room will get. Many times, my companion and I chuckled in the midst of a silent house; other times, that same audience laughed uproariously at something unrealistic but riotous. By contrast, little time is spent on the characters, who are merely—and aptly—named He and She. The result is a surface story that leaves exploration of the deeper layers for post-show conversation that would be mostly hypothetical; the character development here isn’t sufficient to contribute to the discourse.

 

Leads Fiona Byrne and Martin Happer are mostly up to task, though at times seem unable to rise to the level of Ruhl’s clever comedy. That could be a result of Anita Rochon’s direction, which favors the easy laugh over the reality that would make a moment funny. Of course, some of Ruhl’s well-crafted moments can’t help but succeed, including a monologue about the “less masturbatory” nature of theater over film; it’s practically worth the price of admission.

 

Stage Kiss is an enjoyable night at the theater, all the more so for being one of the rare purely contemporary offerings at the Shaw Festival. The audience of theater lovers seemed to revel in its meta delights, content to have a fun night, and leave more introspective experiences for other season offerings.   

 

Call 1-800-SHAW or visit shawfest.com for information on current productions, tickets, and more.

 

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