Zoot Theatre presents ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ at Dayton Art Institute
By Jacqui Theobald
Photo: [l to r] Eric Arntz, Austin Smith, Stephanie Jenkins and Julia Howard in rehearsals for Zoot Theatre’s “The Chronicles of Narnia” at Dayton Art Institute, which runs weekends Feb. 28 through March 9; photo credit: Jacqui Theobald
In the original C. S. Lewis stories, children find themselves in a land of everlasting snow where Christmas never comes. Zoot never meant to take the weather that realistically. However, Dayton’s apparently everlasting bad weather created difficult travel for several cast and crew that come from surrounding towns and threw rehearsals off schedule. This, combined with a company challenged by too many productions and the requirements of a very complex show, led director Gary Thompson and artistic director and puppet and mask designer Tristan Cupp to move the opening date two weeks ahead. “It was our concern for the safety of our people and the good of the show,” Thompson said.
“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” – the second book of The Chronicles of Narnia – tells the story of four children, siblings who have been sent to the country to avoid the danger of air-raids in London during World War II. It has been accurately dramatized by Joseph Robinette. A huge old house, a remote professor and very little oversight allows them to explore the house and its odd rooms and passages.
The youngest, Lucy, finds a wardrobe full of coats and steps in, just to feel the furs. There begins a tale that has every element of a mystery, an allegory and an adventure. The children have a few conflicts among themselves – loyalties and trust issues – as they encounter unbelievable creatures: a talking faun who makes tea, a husband and wife talking beavers, the wicked White Witch who beguiles the younger boy, Edmund, and then enslaves him. Amid many mysterious creatures, including a Christ-like lion, evil wolves, a dwarf, a centaur, a horse, a white stag and finally, Father Christmas, Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter go farther into Narnia.
C. S. Lewis called Narnia a fairytale. It is full of imagery that calls out to be animated by puppets. Puppet designer Cupp and his small staff of artists hold a very high creative standard. “We have to think about scale,” Cupp said. “If the wolf is this size, how tall is the horse? And, Aslan the Lion is a feline. How can we create him so that he moves fluidly? It is a matter of trial and error, as we put a familiar material to a new use.”
When I attended a recent rehearsal, I saw several bare bones wooden armatures and the interior parts that actor/puppeteers will manipulate. The lion has a long flexible spring-like tube for a spine, four legs and a head, each with a control requiring a human hand. Or hands. Several puppets are so complicated it takes two, and sometimes three, people. “One actor may be voicing one character while team working a different one, simultaneously,” Director Thompson explained.
Eric Arntz plays the disgruntled little boy Edmund and also Mr. Beaver, sometimes in the same scene. Austin Smith plays Fenris the wolf, as well as oldest brother Peter. Not only are they often in the same scene, they eventually engage in a battle with each other.
The cast: Natalie Houliston brings power to the White Witch. “I love the contrasts in her character,” Houliston said. “I can either be loud or subtle.”
Jeff Sams is Aslan and Father Christmas, both good guys. Stephanie Jenkins is big sister Susan and the White Stag and the Dwarf. Lisa Bernheim is Mrs. Beaver and several other creatures; Juliet Howard-Welch is Lucy, who is in every scene. Michael Stockstill is the faun, Mr. Tumnus, and the unicorn. Mandy Goodwin, recently returned from New York, is the centaur and various animals. R.J. Steck is a puppeteer second, assisting many others, an absolutely essential position. Many other cast members take a turn as seconds or thirds, when needed. Most are experienced Zoot puppeteers.
The action takes place on a series of platforms, with the characters often leaping from one to another. Like everything else, construction is complicated and sophisticated. Building puppets and sets were Ray Zupp, Kerry Bush, Jim Moser, Eric Moore, Heather Powell, Scott Kimmins, Leesa Haapapuro, Eric Hamlin and Cupp. John Rensal designed lighting and Mason Wisecup did sound. Director Thompson has composed music.
The tech crews work when they can from plans and discussions, always enthusiastically, even when they encounter unforeseen challenges. Jim Moser said, “I come to work on sets here to stay in touch with my creative side.”
Zoot has been stretched thin, having just finished a sold-out run of “Alice in Wonderland” at the Victoria, creating large puppets for the Dayton Opera’s production of “Hansel and Gretel,” a school tour of “The Little Match Girl” and other tasks.
Grownups, it’s time to channel your inner child and remember your sense of wonderment. Plus, you may find a metaphor here: good versus evil; resurrection; finding one’s inner strength. Go forth ye citizens of Narnia and have a great discussion. Zoot has given us art and literature and an elegant production for all ages.
Zoot Theatre Company presents “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” on Feb. 28 and March 1, 2, 8 and 9 at the Dayton Art Institute’s NCR Auditorium, 456 Belmonte Park N. Friday and Saturday performances at 8 p.m., Sunday performances at 2 p.m. For more information, including tickets, please visit zoottheatrecompany.org or daytonartinstitute.org.