Saturday, May 24, 2014

OSF Review: "A Wrinkle in Time" (4) Needs Some Ironing Out

It is my great privilege to review four of the eleven 2014 shows staged by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Of the seven currently running, I am reviewing:

This is our second year reviewing OSF productions. Last year we covered "A Streetcar Named Desire," "The Unfortunates" and "Two Trains Running." I do regret that I didn't start sooner. Since I was in high school drama I have had an interest in attending an OSF production. I just didn't have a real drive to see Shakespeare, I guess. My bad. I regret not coming sooner and more often. I highly recommend the wonderful experience and that YOU not put it off like I did.

You can read my additional opening comments to this series and the other comments I've made in the other reviews I did by clicking the selections in the list above.

Also you'll find our addition of supplemental information to help you plan your own OSF visit. Each play review will also offer an OSF Trip Tips section to help you better enjoy your visit as well as brief restaurant reviews.

Ironing Out a Few Wrinkles Could Improve This Work

Here the cast annoyingly reads from the book. Photo: Jenny Graham.
After a three day stay in Ashland, Ore. I am writing to you from the Java Hut in Crescent City, Calif. where I am enjoying the sunshine and a mocha. The campground where we stayed last night was supposed to have WiFi but I couldn't get signed on to it.

Anyway that's just a wrinkle that took me some time to iron out. And speaking of ironing out, that's just what this production of "A Wrinkle in Time" needed. During my three days at OSF this was the show that had people talking the most. Negatively. For the most part that's the buzz I heard. "The actors they cast are too old." "It's just not right." "We didn't like it."

But, honestly, it wasn't all that bad. My own initial reaction was also one of dislike, but the production quickly grew on me. True, it is awfully cerebral, esoteric and preachy--especially for a "children's" play. I see a lot of productions by the Oregon Children's Theater and the Northwest Children's Theater and this wasn't light enough to be the sort of thing they present. So maybe it was meant for the older crowd, then? But those were the ones who I heard complaining most. 

Many generations have read this book. So what about the younger crowd? I sat surrounded by a group of highschoolers. I heard their murmurings, too. Their reactions were mixed as well. Hmmm.

Charles Wallace (left, Sara Bruner), Meg (Alejandra Escalante) and Calvin
(Joe Wegner) land on a far-flung planet. Photo by Jenny Graham.
Well, I'm glad I had some extra time to mull this all over, because it actually was a great production with only a few wrinkles. Mainly the heavy-handed, overly narrative script. This production is the world premiere of a new stage version (there have been others, plus a Disney movie version) of the tale based on the science fiction fantasy novel by American writer Madeleine L'Engle, first published in 1962. 

The story revolves around a young girl whose father, a government scientist, has gone missing after working on a mysterious project called a tesseract. The book won a Newbery Medal (as well as several other awards after being rejected by several dozen publishers). This new adaptation is by playwright/director Tracy Young

The one hour and forty minute show is staged without an intermission which is just a tad too long. The script needs cutting anyway. I would immediately cut all the reading from the book that is done by the actors. It isn't needed and was just way too invasive. Show, don't tell.

Mrs. Who (K.T. Vogt) dismisses the children
(Alejandra Escalante, Joe Wegner, Sara Bruner)
as a reader (Kate Mulligan) sits in the window.
Photo: Jenny Graham.
Second, yes, it could have benefited from some younger actors playing the kids roles. And it did have a older female playing the role of the youngest boy (which I felt was not a good move and, in this instance, was a little creepy).

Thirdly, I would like to point out that Mrs. Which is not a witch. (Did you see the spelling difference?) The three characters that enable the journey in this allegory are Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which--who together may represent the triune God (Which representing the Holy Spirit) though in the book the three are referred to as guardian angles.

Time Will Tell

But, other than those things, the production was fantastic in many regards. Something I liked about the script was the inclusion of Science Girl (played eerily by Jada Rae Perry). I'm having trouble understanding the meaning of the character and that is why I like the addition--it is food for thought. Perhaps she represents Meg in some way, perhaps she represents "everyman," or perhaps the Divine, for she is always causing action upon the other characters (as if doing voodoo).

Meg Murry (left front, Alejandra Escalante) relives the taunts of her
classmates and teachers at school (Mark Bedard, Jeremy Thompson,
Kate Mulligan) with her brother Charles Wallace (Sara Bruner).
Photo by Jenny Graham.
Also the acting overall, despite adults playing ten and fourteen-year-olds, was really good. Alejandra Escalante did a good job with the role of Meg Murray and Sara Bruner actually did really well as Charles Wallace (if Sandy Duncan can play Peter Pan than why not). The ensemble, too, was marvelous. The show's standouts were Joe Wegner as Calivin O'Keefe, Kate Hurster as Mrs. Murry (reminding me of Lea Thompson in "Back to the Future"), Dan Donohue as Mr. Murray, Judith-Marie Bergan as Mrs. Whatsit (perfect casting) and Michele Mais as Mrs. Who. 

I also liked the "twins," played wonderfully by Jeremy Thompson and Mark Bedard (yes, the same guy that plays Groucho in "Cocoanuts"!), and Daniel T. Parker's portrayal of Aunt Beast.

The stage direction by Tracy Young was done well and very differently. As a piece of experimental theater in many regards, the production used some very new cutting-edge tech and some very old (1950-60's) tech, as well as some older stage (late 1800's) effects and illusions mixed with trendy new time-based media. Plus the precision video mapping on the surface of the stunning backdrop set piece was truly magical. The mix was jaw dropping and extremely effective.

Mrs. Whatsit (left, Judith-Marie Bergan) and Mrs. Who (K.T. Vogt)
contemplate the universe. Photo by Jenny Graham.
Kudos especially to Scenic Designer Christopher Acebo, Lighting Designer Robert Wiezel (stunning), and Video Designer Shawn Sagady (oh, wow), as well as Sound Designer Paul James Prendergast and the other contributing tech crew.

All of this came together--the entire vision--contributing to a real sci-fi creep factor that effectively emulated the feel of Cold War hysteria and the threat/fear of Communism (note the use of red in the production) that was a prevalent theme in the book. The book's other themes of self-worth, coming of age, real beauty, bravery and the overcoming power of the Gospel message (of love) and the imagination are also presented well.

So, I think this production is well worth seeing. Though it might be the weirdest piece of theater you will ever see, and though it might have a wrinkle or two, it will certainly be one of the most rewarding visual experiences you'll likely see (outside a theme park, perhaps). And it's a great one for the kids, too. Maybe a bit lofty, but clean and visually interesting.

OSF Trip Tips

You'll need to see Dennis Sparks' review of this production. His take is very different than mine and he disagrees with me on some major points. Personally, I don't think he gets a few things on this one (land vs. planet, the witches reference, the wormhole idea, etc.), but he is a brilliant reviewer none-the-less.

He also reviews the Ashland Springs Hotel (formerly the Mark Antony) where he stayed. It sounds and looks like a lovely place to stay. So check that out, too.

Our own final Ashland experience was to grab a lunch bite at the popular Martolli's Hand-Tossed Pizza. It's popular because it's cheap, quick and...well, pizza. I had the Combo slice with pepperoni, Canadian bacon, olives and mushrooms with a red sauce. The wife had the Pesto Veggie with pesto, artichoke hearts, sun dried tomatoes and mushrooms with some feta cheese and olive oil.

Despite the fact that I'm not much of a Greek food fan I liked her slice better than mine. I've been on a low fat, low salt diet so my greasy pepperoni and salty pizza was a shock. A bit too much in those regards, but toothsome none-the-less. The crust was very good. And at $2.50 - $3.50 such a big slice of 'za would be hard to beat. The service was fast, so if you're running late for a play, it's an excellent choice.

At any rate, sadly, we're on our way home now (300 miles/5 hours, but well worth the trip). If we get a chance, we'll try to return this fall and see "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," "Into the Woods" and "The Great Society," all opening this summer. And there's always next year with "Much Ado About Nothing," "Guys and Dolls," "Long Day's Journey Into Night," "The Count of Monte Christo," "Pericles," "Antony and Cleopatra," and many more including the premiere of several new plays. So until we meet again, (and parting is such sweet sorrow) I bid you ado, this man's part is thus finished, for...

"All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts..." ~Wm. Shakespeare

By Gregory E. Zschomler
All production photos, by Jenny Graham, provided.
Other photos as noted.

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