Wednesday, December 19, 2012

"Narnia" at Theatre in the Grove


By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker

For its foray into the world of holiday theater, Forest Grove’s venerable Theatre in the Grove tackles “Narnia,” based on C.S. Lewis’ much beloved children’s tale “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.” The production captures both aspects of children’s theater – it is theater for children, and the majority of the cast members are young people.

In order to fully appreciate the show, it is essential to see it through the eyes of a child – happily, we were able to do this because the audience contained an abundance of young people enthusiastically embracing the show’s magic. The cast consists of 20 young people (whose ages range from elementary school through college) and 8 adults. Director Michelle Friend, faced with the challenge of taking over the show halfway through the production process, has done a fine job of synthesizing this large and disparate group into an effective ensemble.

The Leopard (Iris Cebola) sums it all up beautifully in her cast bio: “…it’s cool how people audition for these plays, and then they do all the hard work of running a show, and the actors don’t even get paid in anything but the wonderful experience of acting in live theatre…it means that the actors don’t care that they aren’t earning profit, they just want to entertain the community and have fun. That…is truly awesome” – and it is!

While all of the actors, musicians, crew, and house staff contribute to this “awesome” enterprise, a few merit special mention. Natasha Kujawa (who, with her mom Carla, choreographed the show) opens the evening with the first of several ballet numbers. Her graceful movements and delightful smile set the tone for much of what follows. John Ollis (Professor Digory/Father Christmas) is charmingly avuncular and conspiratorial in his role as the children’s uncle.

Breanna Grimes (Edmund Pevensie) has perhaps the greatest challenge, playing a male role so convincingly that only the program betrays the secret of her gender. She is deliciously venal, and the incessant squabbling between Edmund and Lucy (Aubrey Crouch) provides some of the evening’s most amusing moments, despite the plaintive efforts of older sister Susan (Lindsay Partain) to mediate. The fight scenes between Peter Pevensie and various snarling foes are lively and well-executed – two younger boys were overheard at intermission marveling at the authentic swordplay.

Comic relief rests in the able hands (or, perhaps, paws) of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver (Tom Robinson and Dusti Arab). Often in the background, their verbal and physical interactions frequently steal the scenes, and they provide some of the strongest solo and choral voices in the cast. Pruella Centers uses her roles as Mrs. McReady and the White Witch to portray stereotypically angry and nasty (but terribly funny) old women in both the real and fantasy worlds of the play.

James Grimes is well cast as Aslan, the thematic key character of the story. Kudos to the makeup and costuming crew for giving him an other-worldly physical mystique that complements his powerful role in the bizarre world of Narnia. He delivers his lines crisply and firmly, yet conveys a compassion that justifies his martyrdom. In addition, he has a powerful and compelling voice that anchors the choral work of much of the show.

The orchestra, conducted by music director Seung Jin Bae, is really quite wonderful.  The score is complex, and the musicians never miss a beat. The sets are effective, especially the wonderful wardrobe door – only when the house lights are full was it apparent that the seemingly ornate carvings are really just painted on.

Close reading of the program reveals the extent to which “Narnia” is truly a family affair – not just for the audience children in their holiday finest, but for the cast, which is generously peppered with parents, children, and siblings. Theatre in the Grove brings something special and unique to the Forest Grove community.

“Narnia” is playing at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, through December 23d.

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