Since its publication in 1950, C.S. Lewis’ fantasy novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has captured the imaginations of children (and adults) and inspired adaptations for TV, film, radio, and stage. Most of these adaptations (including Imagination Stage’s Helen Hayes Award–winning production from 2012, remounted in 2019) feature a large cast and a lengthy run time to bring Lewis’ story to life. By contrast, Adventure Theatre MTC’s current production—reprising its 2016 run—tackles the story in one act, with two actors and a minimalist set and props.
Adventure Theatre’s intimate venue at Glen Echo Park allows Peter (Dylan Toms) and Lucy (Irene Hamilton) to interact up close with the audience, introducing themselves as siblings fondly reminiscing over a childhood adventure. This setup allows Toms and Hamilton to establish themselves as both the narrators of the tale and the actors of all of the roles—often switching between roles within a single scene.
South African actress Le Clanché du Rand’s script, as directed by Tom Story and Shanara Gabrielle, eliminates some of the story’s context familiar to Lewis’ readers. While Peter and Lucy (and their siblings Edmund and Susan) retain the British accents and English schoolchildren attire (costumes by Paris Francesca) of the original, the backdrop of World War II as the reason the children leave Blitz-era London for the countryside to live with an eccentric old professor is gone, along with the professor himself. As a result, this adaptation leaves it unclear exactly how and why the children found themselves in a large country home with a spare room—complete with antique suitcases, chandeliers, and of course, the titular wardrobe—that looks like it hasn’t been touched since the early 20th century. Yet by removing some of these particulars, ATMTC’s adaptation presents Lewis’ tale of adventure, sacrifice, and magic as one that could have happened to any child, anytime, anywhere—wherever a hidden portal to Narnia might be found.
ATMTC’s production crew ingeniously brings Narnia—frozen under the White Witch’s spell when the children enter it through the wardrobe—to life. Every element of the set design (based on the 2016 production) serves multiple purposes in the play, with a suitcase notably serving as a hiding place, the Witch’s sleigh, and opening to reveal a tea setting when the faun Mr. Tumnus invites Lucy to his home. Paris Francesca’s costumes and parasols allow Toms and Hamilton to play all of the roles, with a horned cap for goat-man Mr. Tumnus, sparkling silver tiara and white fur cloak for the White Witch, and umbrella puppets for the talking animal characters among the highlights. (My Narnia-loving six-year-old commented excitedly, “That’s clever!” when Toms pulled a brown dressing gown off a coat rack that had been part of the spare room set, put it on with a fur cap, and transformed into Mr. Beaver, appearing to guide the children to the great lion Aslan). Sound design by Kenny Neal (who returns, along with Tom Story, from ATMTC’s 2016 production) and lighting design by Lynn Joslin skillfully advance the plot and evoke the atmosphere of Narnia. When Hamilton first appears as the White Witch, the swirling, howling winter winds, the sound of sleigh bells jingling and a whip cracking powerfully convey her intimidating, icy presence—with nary a reindeer in sight. Later in the play, lighting projections creating shadow designs transform yet another suitcase into the ancient Stone Table with its mysterious markings—a subtly brilliant touch.
Each playing multiple roles to enact the entire story in less than one hour requires Toms and Hamilton to deliver performances equal to the production crew’s in skill, although du Rand’s compressed script allows them far less room for subtlety. Both Toms and Hamilton excel at physical comedy, and shine most when delivering exaggerated mannerisms that delight young audiences. Stomping and sulking around the stage as resentful and always-hungry younger brother Edmund, prancing and giggling nervously as Mr. Tumnus upon meeting Lucy for the first time, or comedically reminding Lucy not to step on his tail as Mr. Beaver, Toms frequently had the children in attendance in stitches. Edmund’s character growth over the course of the story, Tumnus’ internal conflict over whether to deliver Lucy to the White Witch, and Mr. Beaver’s long waiting and hoping for the arrival of Aslan and four mysterious children to fight back against the Witch’s iron rule, are largely rushed through or glossed over in this adaptation. Hamilton commands the stage with her exuberant energy and curiosity as Lucy and her imperious, cruel, domineering presence as the White Witch, although her portrayal of Susan is even more one-note bossy older sister than Lewis’ original. The result is a Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that is considerably less solemn and more slapstick than the novel or most of its adaptations. I found myself simultaneously appreciating all that the actors were able to do with the script, while wishing for a little more space to develop and sit with the story’s more emotionally resonant moments before rushing to the next action scene.
Yet ATMTC’s adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe ultimately succeeds by drawing young audiences into the story through well-timed breaking of the fourth wall. Toms and Hamilton address the children in the audience directly multiple times throughout the play, provoking giggles, shouts of response, and one little boy in the front row nearly running onto the stage in his excitement. Near the end of the play, Peter and Lucy state, “It’s time for other children to go to Narnia now. Our job is to remember as best we can. And tell the story. And never forget.” For nearly one hour at ATMTC, Toms and Hamilton tell the story and other children go to Narnia. As soon as the play ended, my six-year-old asked if he could watch it again. If that’s not a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what is.
Running Time: 55 minutes, with no intermission.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe plays through January 7, 2024, at Adventure Theatre MTC (ATMTC), 7300 MacArthur Blvd, Glen Echo, MD. Showtimes are Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays (and several Wednesdays and Thursdays) at 11 AM, and weekends at 11 AM and 2 PM. See the schedule to plan and purchase tickets. Tickets (general admission, all ages, $25) are available online or by calling the box office at 301-634-2270.
Lucy, et al.: Irene Hamilton
Peter, et al.: (Understudy): Ben Ribler
Lucy, et al.: Anna Takayo
Peter, et al.: Dylan Toms
Co-Directors: Tom Story and Shanara Gabrielle
Costume Designer: Paris Francesca
Set Designer: Based on the 2016 Production
Assistant Set Designer: Gisela Estrada
Lighting Designer: Lynn Joslin
Props & Puppets Designer: Andrea “Dre” Moore
Stage Manager: Sam Linc
Assistant Stage Manager: Mary Doebel
Free Holiday Photos on the Set: November 25, 2023, at 11 AM
Free Hot Cocoa Bar: November 26, 2023, at 11 AM and December 3, 2023, at 11 AM
ASL Interpreted Performance: December 9, 2023, at 2 PM
Sensory/Autism-Friendly Performance: December 9, 2023, at 2 PM