by Hugh Hunter
Over the years I have generally enjoyed the edgy fare at Allens Lane Theater. But the current production, “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” just puzzled me.
Director Martina Plag makes a daring attempt to stage Ray Bradbury’s Gothic novel, using a plethora of lighting effects (Mike Lucek), sound effects (Jeff Story) and her own hand puppets. But if you are not familiar with the novel (or the Disney movie), you have little idea what is going on.
The story concerns a spooky carnival that arrives during the night by train. Its evil game is to exploit the pain and desires of innocent townsfolk in order to lure them in, then hold them in servitude forever.
The star is Will (Leila Ghaznavi), a young boy on the cusp of adolescence. His best friend Jamie (Sara Nye) yearns to be grown up. Will’s father, Mr. Halloway (Bill Hanson), wants to be young again and laments being distant from his son.
Lorna Howley, Leslie Berkowitz, Kevin Chick and Heather Cole play most other characters, a wide mix of citizen-victims, carnival villains and freaks.
An abundance of props is used in the carnival setting. Actors revolve mirrors to suggest the sinister maze. At times actors bob up and down with cardboard horses, a magical carousel that makes you young or old, depending on its spin.
And Plag uses her hand puppets to distinguish scenes where characters are under the carnival influence. I know that integrating actor and hand puppet is a modern trend in puppetry, but I find it hard to suspend disbelief when the actor is so visually present.
Despite all this theatrical activity (or perhaps because of it), you remain in a state of confusion. The production never boils the story down to something you can follow, and the big struggle between good and evil never materializes.
The arch villain is Mr. Dark (Kevin Chick), the carnival master. But with his harlequin outfit and stilts, he comes across as a fun-loving guy you would like to have a beer with. You do not feel the terror of evil, and except for the train arrival sequence, I never felt scared.
For sure, the people involved in this production genuinely love Ray Bradbury’s work. The show makes continuous nodding references to characters in the novel as if everyone in the audience is familiar with it.
This kind of casual referencing is the kind of thing you see in parody. (Actually there was a South Park episode, “Something Wall-Mart This Way Comes,” where cheap prices seduce innocent townsfolk into Faustian bargains.)
The production team is talented, and I am sympathetic to the huge effort that went into the staging. But “Something” is such an insider adoration of the novel that the show is unlikely to have much appeal beyond the realm of Ray Bradbury groupies.
Allens Lane is located at Allens Lane near McCallum. “Something Wicked This Way Comes” will run through March 24. Reservations at 215-248-0546.