Maybe I just didn’t get it. That’s the only conclusion I can come to after watching Planet Ant’s bizarre, stylized production of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. The rest of the audience seemed to understand. They were laughing at the funny parts, I guess. But there I sat, in the last of two rows, clutching my big blue notebook and ballpoint pen, trying to unearth some greater meaning in director York Griffith’s oddball endeavor. As of this writing, I’m still in the dark.
The program explains that The Wizard of Oz is so deeply imbedded in our adolescent psyche that watching it is more like recalling a childhood dream than seeing a piece of art.
“But what would be necessary to view The Wizard of Oz with complete objectivity?” it asks.
In this case, the answer is acting guru Anne Bogart’s Viewpoints, a rehearsal technique Planet Ant used to present the deconstructionist version of the classic tale. Surely The Wizard of Oz is a good starting point for deconstruction. After all, where is “over the rainbow” exactly, and when does the journey to Oz actually take place? In an effort to find out (or perhaps to point out the ridiculousness of such a concern) the cast and design team created a production heavily reliant on movement and spatial composition.
But some things are better left in rehearsal. While the production casts a slightly more sinister eye on a well-known story, the bits and pieces seem more like a string of acting exercises than a tale meant for an audience’s eye.
Take, for example, Chris Korte’s turn as the Scarecrow. While Korte provided deft physicality and some great one-liners, was it necessary to watch him slither across the stage for a full five minutes or so, gathering “poppies” and lackadaisically speaking into the floor? Or what about Carolyn Hayes as the Wicked Witch, carelessly scattering a bundle of artificial flowers and sputtering, “Floros por los muertos”? The episode was vaguely reminiscent of the whole “poppies will put them to sleep” montage, but I also couldn’t help thinking about the final scene from A Streetcar Named Desire. Did they steal that line intentionally?
More effective was Keith Allan Kalinowski’s portrayal of the Lion, an ironically brave performance that plumbed the emotional depth of cowardice with such vigor it was frightening. Speaking the lyrics of “Courage,” Kalinowski ruminated, “What makes the Hottentot so hot? What puts the ‘ape’ in apricot? What have they got that I ain’t got? Courage!” Brimming with feeling, Kalinowski found something touching, awesome and scary amid the humor of the words.
Likewise, Maureen Biermann as Dorothy opened herself to the emotional journey of the role and made a real connection to each of the friends she met along the way, as did Tiffany Bedwell as the Good Witch. Eric W. Maher’s heartless Tin Man was difficult to read, but perhaps intentionally so.
Kate Bennett’s costumes tied the fragmented story together, using found objects that loosely shadowed the attire worn in the movie. Bits of armor for the Tin Man and a ragged lion’s hairdo for Kalinowski suggest well-known archetypes without fully resorting to the original costumes.
Griffith’s staging provided some memorable compositions and proved that not all of the production’s creativity was misplaced. Before the trip to the Emerald City, an announcer asked the audience to wear the green-tinted glasses we were handed during intermission. Bonus points for creativity there. And later, when the lights went out and we were left listening to the flying monkey music in the dark, I felt a tinge of apprehension. Residual fear from my childhood?
Ultimately, the production emphasizes the characters’ transformations on their journey through Oz. A “heartless cad” becomes a “kind soul; a “wayward child” is later called a “sweet murderous child.” We are shown that not everything is as it seems.
Likewise, this production counts on us to see the story anew, and in that it succeeds. But as to its purpose and intent, I haven’t a clue.
The Wizard of Oz is playing at Planet Ant Theatre (2357 Caniff, Hamtramck) at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Runs until Feb. 22. Call 313-365-4948.Ronit Feldman is a freelance writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org