Fort Wayne Youtheatre's production of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” is even more poignant now than when it was originally scheduled more than a year ago.
The story, which starts with children being wrenched from their regular lives during World War II, has taken on fresh meaning during the pandemic in which children have had their routines interrupted, director Christopher J. Murphy says.
The show was announced as part of Youtheatre's 2019-20 schedule in 2019, but because of the pandemic, the production didn't even make it as far as auditions for the performances scheduled for May 2020. The show was postponed to December, with auditions taking place in mid-October. The cast made it about three weeks into rehearsal before the show had to be postponed again (they instead put on a radio play at the holidays).
Normally a Youtheatre production takes five to six weeks from auditions to performances. But now, after more than a year of planning and more than five months after auditions, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” will finally be seen this weekend at Embassy Theatre.
“God bless them and how dedicated and committed they are. In that entire time, we have only lost one cast member along the way,” Murphy says, adding that the cast member who dropped out only did so because the new dates conflicted with another show she is a part of.
Because of the pandemic, the production is different than it would have been in 2020, but that's not just because of health and safety protocols. After a year of quarantine and remote learning, the story is being seen through fresh eyes – even for audience or cast members who have previously read the C.S. Lewis book or watched an adaptation of “Wardrobe.”
“We look at everything now through a whole new frame of reference, don't we?” Murphy says.
When London was being regularly bombed by German forces during WWII, the city's children were sent to the countryside for their protection. Separated from their everyday lives in the city, the four siblings in “Wardrobe” create a new world to keep themselves busy and distract themselves from wondering what was happening to the rest of their family who had to stay behind.
In this version of the story, Murphy says Narnia and its characters such as Aslan and the White Witch are very much a creation of the children's imaginations used as a coping mechanism.
The set is made to look like a large English home and people from the household double as characters in the Narnia story such as the housekeeper becoming the White Witch. Aslan gets his start as a lion mask that is just hanging on the wall.
Like Aslan, all the animal characters are represented by masks created by executive and artistic director Todd Espeland who helped stage the production and led sessions on mask work with the cast.
Lewis wrote the story as an allegory for Christianity, which Murphy says Youtheatre isn't sidestepping.
“But I see it as very much a story about the empowerment of young people, and how ordinary young people can be thrust into a very difficult situation and still have the strength to triumph over their circumstances,” he says. “Whether their circumstances are evacuating their homes, being stuck in their homes or – in this case – having to literally vanquish the forces of evil.”
“Wardrobe” is being performed at the Embassy because the larger venue allows for more seating than Youtheatre's usual stage in ArtsLab. It really works out for the story, Murphy says, because the grand space of the Embassy becomes an extension of the setting for the story.
The cast includes Owen Saalfrank as Peter, Marissa Drew as Susan, Landon Richey as Edmund and Alivia Wheeler as Lucy.
Because of social distance built into the staging, the cast has been cleared to perform without face coverings. The audience is still encouraged to wear masks and maintain social distance.
Murphy says Youtheatre is planning a full season of programming for the 2021-22 season, which will be announced Saturday.
If You Go
What: “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”
When: 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Embassy Theatre, 125 W. Jefferson Blvd.
Admission: $25 adults, $18 children; Embassy box office, 424-6287 or Ticketmaster.com