The Lion, the Witch, the Wardrobe—and some very good acting

Pacific Theatre is presenting Ron Reed's adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe at Pacific Theatre.

John Both and Rebecca DeBoer in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lighting by John Webber. (Photo by Ron Reed)

When you watch an actor transform from one character to another, it’s like watching an excellent magic trick. It’s alchemical: they were one thing and now they’re another. And there are many such transformations in Pacific Theatre’s skilled, innocent production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Company director Ron Reed has adapted C.S. Lewis’s multi-character fantasy novel for just two actors—plus a third who introduces the show.

The novel is about a group of four young siblings who are evacuated from London during the Blitz in WWII. As they explore the fine country home they’ve landed in, Lucy discovers a wardrobe that’s a portal into a magic land called Narnia. There she befriends a faun named Mr. Tumnus. Lucy’s brother Edmund also separately crosses the threshold and is recruited by the wicked White Witch, who gets him addicted to Turkish delight and plots to kill Edmund and his kin. (A prophecy has foretold that the White Witch will lose control of Narnia when four humans enter the kingdom.) From there on, it’s a battle between the forces of evil, led by the White Witch, and the forces of good, led by a lion named Aslan. At stake: Edmund’s soul; the lives of Lucy, Edmund, and their older siblings Susan and Peter; and dominion over Narnia.

In Reed’s version, it’s 1962. When grown-up Lucy and Peter meet one another in the old house, they relive the magic of their childhood adventure by retelling their story. Reed leans heavily into the pleasures of fantasy—of making things up and acting them out.

Actor John Voth, who plays Peter and a bunch of other characters, is kind of a genius at this. Right off the top, his Mr. Tumnus is a sweet, fey, Irish faun, who, despite being poor, has the natural manners and gestures of a courtier. Physically and vocally, Voth’s work is consistently resourceful and specific. His Edmund is hilarious: the character’s venality is the innocent venality of childhood; Edmund simply wantsTurkish delight like most kids want Christmas morning. But there’s an aggrieved side to this Edmund as well: you can see it in the petulance of his walk. Mr. and Mrs. Beaver are important allies. As Voth plays them. they have working-class accents, Mr. Beaver has a lazy S, and the pair waddle right into your heart.

Rebecca DeBoer also delivers fine work as Lucy and others. She’s not as freewheeling as Voth is and there could be more variation in her deep tones as the White Witch and Aslan, but her Lucy is affectingly pure of heart and DeBoer approaches this piece with winningly wide-eyed commitment.

It’s hard to distinguish what combination of writing, design, and direction have gone into individual moments—and I couldn’t get in touch with a company rep to find out—but it’s clear that director Sarah Rodgers and her team have gone to town.

In 1962, when Lucy and Peter re-enter the spare room, the wardrobe and several other pieces of furniture are covered with drop cloths. And, when they relive their entrance to Narnia, Peter pushes the wardrobe across the room as Lucy pulls yards and yards of white drop cloth off the back of it to create the snow-covered fields of the magic kingdom. It’s fantastic.

John Webber has a downright orgiastic good time lighting the piece. I’m thinking, for instance, of a sequence that goes from gloomy nighttime violence into the warming light of redemption and day—and later, the golden melting of a character who has been turned to stone.

Lauchlin Johnston provides a perfect set—not just the wardrobe, but also a spare room in which one wall is painted in an elegant woodland mural and the other is grounded in the mundane world of heavy oak paneling.

Julie Casselman’s sound design and composition does a subtle job of supporting the mood without dictating it. My one quibble is that, in 1962, an old radio is playing “White Christmas” and the lyrics distract from the dialogue.

I have more significant problems with the story itself.

Lewis’s novel is self-consciously metaphoric—Aslan is a Christ figure—and, watching this adaptation, I spent too much time being annoyed by the deification of Aslan: by his magical powers, which are sometimes very convenient, and by the awe-struck reverence with which all of the good characters relate to him. Very close to the heart of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe lurks an impulse to proselytize.

The gender stereotypes in the source material are dated. By dint of being the eldest sibling—and, I’m willing to bet, by dint of his maleness—Peter gets to become the High King of Narnia while Lucy must be satisfied with being a run-of-the-mill Queen, even though she was the first human to enter the land. And, when battles rage, Peter is on the front line, bravely brandishing his sword while Lucy is forced to watch until it’s time to tend to the wounded.

Besides, it’s hard to stage massive battles with only two actors. That’s bound to be a challenge in any stage adaptation of this story.

Still, this version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe charmed me. Watching it, I almost feel like I had permission to believe in Santa again.

THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE Adapted by Ron Reed from C.S. Lewis’s novel. Directed by Sarah Rodgers. A Pacific Theatre production. At Pacific Theatre on Friday, December 14.  Continues until December 29.Tickets.

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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