CHILDREN'S THEATER REVIEW : 'Wardrobe' Is Attired in Sophistication

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A director's vision illuminates the Laguna Playhouse Youth Theater's unusual production of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" with elegance and sophistication.

The opening scenes are stunning by any measure, as director Joe Lauderdale pays heartfelt tribute to his inspiration, Canada's remarkable Cirque du Soleil.

Through an oversized, sensuously curved wardrobe set against closed curtains, androgynous figures in hooded bodysuits and delicate, expressionless white masks make their entrances. They move fluidly to haunting New Age music, lit by shifting darks, whites and muted colors.

The otherworldly feel of the odd dance--smoothly choreographed by Sara Lepere--continues as the actors take ruffs and draperies, jackets and skirts from the wardrobe. When they've dressed, they turn away from the audience for a few beats and then turn back, masks gone, to reveal faces striped with paint or wearing animal snouts. They regard the audience, then gracefully disappear into the wardrobe.

C.S. Lewis' classic story, about four children who fight the forces of evil to save the magical land of Narnia, has begun.

Set designer Robert L. Smith offers the next stunner. His interpretation of the Narnian woods is no fairy tale forest but a post-apocalyptic tangle of chairs, ladders, pieces of picture frames and other wooden detritus. In the center is an archway made of wooden columns, some upright, some askew. It's terrific.

The play loses depth with the spoken dialogue; few of the young actors (the cast members are from age 10 to adult) get beneath the surface of their speeches. Adult actor Tom Clark as the majestic Christlike figure Aslan does go deep, however, and dancer Sandra Winieski as the White Stag, the story's symbol of hope, is a visual delight.

The adaptation, by Joseph Robinette, is true to Lewis' own vision of death, redemption and resurrection, and so is this production, save for two slips, one major, one minor.

The minor slip is having the leonine Aslan lip-sync taped roars that make actor Clark seem as though he has indigestion. The major slip is allowing adult actor Lisa Hale to portray the White Witch as a raving, bumbling cartoon. Hale gets laughs, but what is supposed to be an epic struggle between good and true evil is diminished.

Still, Lewis' story, the set, the choreography, Lauderdale's imaginative risk-taking, Dwight Richard Odle's eye-catching costumes, R. Timothy Osborn's dramatic lighting and the purity of David Edwards' sound all add up to a theater outing to remember.

"The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" continues through Sunday at the Moulton Theatre, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. All performances are sold out. (714) 494-8021.

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