Stage Door Review
A Wrinkle in Time
Monday, June 19, 2023
written and directed by Thomas Morgan Jones
Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, Stratford
June 16-October 29, 2023
“A straight line is not the shortest distance between two points”
The children’s show at the Stratford Festival this year is a new adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 young adult novel A Wrinkle in Time. I saw the stage version without ever having read the book or its four sequels, but I assume that’s a situation that many in the audience will find themselves in. It’s a spectacle melding live action, light, sound and continuous video projection. The play seems to assume a knowledge of the source material which is not a good thing even for those who have read the book. Every stage adaption must be able to stand on its own. As it is, a viewer of the stage adaptation simply has to accept that incidents are going to keep happening on stage without any background given to explain what was happening or why.
The story concerns the Murry family. You won’t learn most of this from the play but both the father Alex and the mother Kate are scientists – he a physicist researching the space-time continuum and she a microbiologist. They have four children only two of whom appear in the play. The oldest is Meg who is about 13. The other is Charles Wallace, the youngest, who is about 6 years old, speaks seldom but can read people’s thoughts and feelings. In the play Charles seems only slightly younger than Meg.
The problem the Murry family tries not to discuss is that Alex has been missing for two years. When he disappeared, why, and where he may be are unknown. One dark and stormy night the Murrys’ new neighbour, Mrs. Whatsit, drops in unexpectedly. Before she leaves she mentions that she knows about the “tesseract”. Kate and Meg happen to know that this is the concept that Alex was working on when he disappeared.
Meg and Charles decide to visit Mrs. Whatsit to find out what else she knows. On the way they meet a schoolmate of Meg’s, Calvin O’Keefe, who decides to go with them. Once at Mrs. Whatsit’s house they see she already has a guest, Mrs. Who, who loves quotations from famous people. There they hear the voice of another strange being, Mrs. Which, who promises the Murrys that she and the other Mrs. Ws, as they are called, will help the children find their father.
By unknown means, the Mrs. Ws can transport themselves and the children through time and space by folding or wrinkling it so that two faraway places come close together. What they discover is that a dark cloud, called The Black Thing in the book but simply the Shadow in the play, is taking over the universe. The Mrs. Ws know somehow that the Shadow is the source of all evil.
By unknown means, the Mrs. Ws know that the children’s father is imprisoned on the planet Camazotz. Because the area where Alex is held is covered by the Shadow, the Mrs. Ws, for crucial reasons never explained, cannot enter, but the children can. There the children discover a city where all the inhabitants are controlled by a group mind call IT (this is pronounced “it”, not as separate letters). The only way that Meg and Calvin will be able to find Alex is if Charles allows himself to be taken over by IT. Will the children be able to find and rescue Alex? Will they be able to break the hold of IT over Charles’s mind? These are the questions that the play answers. What it doesn’t answer is “Does anybody in the audience actually care what happens?”
The great difficulty with the story is that how and why things happen is totally unexplained. So is the nature of the Mrs. Ws. Who are they, why do they help, what exactly are their powers, how do they know where Alex is and why can’t they save him themselves? The play is a long series of unexplained incidents which we simply have to accept if we are to follow the plot. There is more explanation in the book and adapter and director Thomas Morgan Jones could have given us more background simply by having the children ask, “Who are you?” or “Why is this this happening?” at key points in the story.
The result of this lack of explanation meant that I, not having read the book, had no idea what was going on except that three children were trying to save the father of two of them from something bad with the help of three beings who looked like strange old women, and I really did not care if they succeeded or not. Mrs. Which kept saying, “It is not yet time”, until for unknown reasons she said, “It is now time”. Why one time was right and another was not was never clear.
What was clear is that a lot of effort has been put into the coordination of projections, sound, light and live action in the show. Teresa Przybylski is credited with the set design which consists of two tall towers. These are, in fact, two huge right trapezoidal prisms set on end. Fantastic projections created by jaymez play over the sides of these towers from before the play starts until after the play is over. The towers rotate into different configurations to suggest different locations.
A minimum of furniture is placed off-centre toward stage right in front of the two towers – a dining table and chairs for the Murrys’ home, a rocking chair for Mrs. Who, but almost nothing else. Alex’s prison cell is indicated simply by a square of Kimberly Purtell’s precision lighting. Movement through time and space is shown by a gesture from one of the Mrs. Ws and a downpour of streaks on the surfaces of the towers behind. The most amusing linking of live action and projection is when the children take an elevator, indicated by standing in front of a projection on one of the towers while mindless Muzak plays during their trip upwards.
Robin Fisher’s costume designs are delightful. The ordinary humans are in ordinary nondescript outfits, but the mind-controlled inhabitants of Camazotz all wear gender-distinct grey uniforms with red accents. The Mrs. Ws are clad in whimsical, cloudlike fluffs of fabric, with Mrs. Which given a headdress that makes her look like a Viking queen. The most eye-popping costumes are those of the inexplicable three-fold creature called Aunt Beast who looks like three amiable tyrannosaurids with four hands.
With so many of the particulars of the story unclear or unknown, it falls to the energy of the cast to carry us along to make us feel like we should be invested in a tale we don’t understand. In this, the cast does an excellent job. As Meg, Charles and Calvin, Celeste Catena, Noah Beemer and Robert Markus do a fine job of playing children and avoid any hints of cutesiness that adults often affect in performing such roles. Catena is an engaging Meg and draws us in by showing how Meg triumphs over her own doubts to achieve great things. Beemer makes Charles Wallace a lovable nerd who discovers an heroic side he didn’t know he had. Markus does well in supplying an attractive, outgoing personality to a character whose personality the writer seems to have neglected.
Beck Lloyd exudes intelligence and concern as Kate. The fact that she doubles as a Camazotzian mother, however, is confusing. At first, we think Lloyd is playing Kate again except Kate who has been taken over by IT. It dawned on me much too late that Lloyd was actually playing an entirely different character. Jamie Mac has virtually nothing to do as Alex except look unhappy while captive and worried when freed.
As for the three Mrs. Ws, Nestor Lozano, Jr., as Mrs. Whatsit certainly wins as the bubbliest and most engaging and the one with the best comic timing. Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah makes Mrs. Who come across as wise and humorously aware of her unstoppable habit of quoting people. Kim Horsman’s Mrs. Which seems always in a state of high seriousness with none of the humour of the other two Mrs. Ws. Erica Peck lends a manic energy to a figure called the Happy Medium, who the character is and what she has to do with the story is a mystery.
A Wrinkle in Time is one of the most challenged books in US schools, though you would be hard pressed to know why from this adaptation since all the religious references have been removed. Nevertheless, when the book is taught, it is felt appropriate for Grades 6-8. Parents should heed this given that Stratford has listed this as a “family” play. The play includes discussions of tesseracts and the fifth dimension. If you think your children will find this intriguing, then you will know that they are the right age for the show. Yet, even so, the main failing of this stage adaptation is that far more time seems to have been spent on the show’s admittedly high production values rather than on telling a story clearly or with enough detail to make the action understandable. Those already familiar with the book may be satisfied to see it on stage, but those who are not may simply look on more in confusion than wonder.
Photo: Noah Beemer as Charles Wallace, Nestor Lozano, Jr., as Mrs. Whatsit, Robert Markus as Calvin and Celeste Catena as Meg.; Robert Markus as Calvin, Noah Beemer as Charles Wallace and Celeste Catena as Meg; Celeste Catena as Meg, Jamie Mac as Alex and Robert Markus as Calvin. © 2023 David Hou.
For tickets visit: www.stratfordfestival.ca.