‘The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe’

The start-up of this year’s artistic season, which often delays for a few weeks after Labor Day, has come upon us bright and early, this year.

This week, I want to share with you news about two theatrical productions which will be coming your way soon: The Winged Ox Players of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church will be offering four performances of ”The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” created by Joseph Robinette from the well-known story by C.S. Lewis, by the same title. That will be performed at the Willow Bay Theater, Sept. 20-21 and 27-28, with all performances beginning at 7:30, except for a 2 p.m. matinee on the 21st.

The second will be a month of performances in Buffalo at 710 Main St., which was previously known as Studio Arena Theatre. The show is called ”I Love Lucy Live on Stage.” There will be two preview performances, Sept. 17-18 and then regular performances will continue through Oct. 13. The theater at 710 Main is now operated by the staff of Shea’s Performing Arts Center, which is located in the same block, in the Downtown Buffalo Theater District.

This week, we’ve interviewed the co-directors of the Jamestown-based production, and two of the actors from the Buffalo production. Both offer promise of good things for theater lovers.

WINGED OX

In the middle ages, when nearly everyone was illiterate, people learned to communicate with symbols. A picture of a woman in blue clothing was recognized to represent the Virgin Mary, for example. A man holding a key or a set of keys was recognized as St. Peter. The Church, especially, used this technique to teach often complex ideas to the population in general.

St. Luke, the author of the third Gospel, was symbolized by an ox with wings. When a group of members of St. Luke’s Church formed a group to present a Christian message through the art of the theater, they named themselves The Winged Ox Players.

Their next production – their third – is based on the first of the seven high fantasy novels which are collectively called ”The Chronicles of Narnia,” by Anglican theologian C.S. Lewis. The central thread of the first of those stories is that four young siblings from London, named Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie, were among the many children who were sent away from their homes in the city, to temporary lodgings with strangers, in rural areas, to escape the daily bombings by Nazi war planes, during World War II. Those children often were forced by circumstances to behave like adults and to undertake actions involving enormous courage.

Sent to lodge with a dusty university professor, outside Oxford, the children discover a piece of furniture in his home, called a wardrobe, which was something like a free-standing closet. Anyone who walked into the wardrobe was magically transported to the fantasy kingdom of Narnia. There, the children undertook very adult and demanding adventures. The first involved freeing the kingdom from the powers of Jadis, who is called ”The White Witch.”

The true ruler of Narnia is the talking lion, Aslan, although his throne has been usurped by the witch. Aslan is commonly considered a metaphor for Christ, and his wisdom and his courageous sacrifice are easy to compare with those of Christ, although Lewis always insisted that his stories were only stories, and not metaphors.

Playing the role of Aslan will be Miguel Covarrubias, St. Luke’s youth minister. The White Witch is portrayed by Marge Fiore. The Pevensie Children are enacted by Madeline DeJoy, Lars Benson, Mary Williams, and Gavin Card. Other actors are Paulette Ziemba, Doug Mann, Lindsey Anderson, Christian Anderson, Beck Benson, Cathy Covarrubias and David Williams.

Set construction, costume preparation and other elements of the production have been undertaken by Kim Mann, Skylar O’Brien, Katie Helman, Mark Fiore, Gail Coyle, Bill Thomas, Gary Peters Jr., Patti Culliton, Marlene Mudge, Janet Card, Donna Phillippi, Kristen Ernewein, Jennifer Pierce, Liz Nixon and Cindy Pierce.

The co-directors of the production are Deacon Pierce and Steven Cobb. Both are alumni of Maple Grove High School, although some years apart.

”In July, we held a community-wide audition, and we were very pleased by how many people came to try out for roles or to volunteer for crew positions, including both members of our own church, and people who aren’t members,” Pierce said.

”We started rehearsals in July, and have been rehearsing three nights per week, ever since,” Cobb added.

The adaptation of the story from narrative to stage production by Joseph Robinette has been undertaken specifically to support a Christian interpretation of the plot, according to the directors, which was one of the main considerations in selecting it to be their latest production. ”This is a production intended for the entire family, not just a children’s show,” according to Pierce.

Both directors invited our readers to visit their production’s Facebook page, and expressed praise for Jordan Spencer, who is the manager of the Willow Bay Theatre, where they are preparing for their performances. The theater is located upstairs in the building which once housed the Montgomery Ward Department Store, at 21 E. Third St., in downtown Jamestown. The visit should be enjoyable and inspirational for the whole family. As you face the building, from Third Street, the entrance is on your left.

LUCY ON STAGE

Few residents of Jamestown have gone on to such fame and fortune as did Lucille Ball. For all her starring roles in films and smash performances on radio, television and the Broadway stage, without question she is best known for the leading role in the 1950s television series ”I Love Lucy.” That series has been shown in virtually every country on earth.

Beginning Tuesday, you are invited to visit nearby Buffalo, to see two of the actual scripts from that series, being filmed as they once were by Ball and her husband, Desi Arnaz.

We recently did a pair of phone interviews with the actors who will be playing Lucy Ricardo, the character which Lucille Ball performed in the series, and Ricky Ricardo, Arnaz’ character. Both interviewees performed right here in Jamestown as part of this year’s Lucy-Desi Comedy Festival, in early August, but no one brought us all together until the Shea’s staff did, a few days ago.

Bill Mendieta will be playing Ricky Ricardo. He said that audiences who attend the performances of this show will be treated exactly as they would have been if they had attended the original filming of two episodes, back in the early 1950s.

”An announcer would greet the audience and would explain to them that they will be part of the shows which they are about to see, and that if they make noises or cause distractions, it will damage the performances. Of course, their laughter and other reactions to the comedy will make the shows stronger,” he said.

The two episodes which the company will be re-creating will be ”The Benefit,” from the show’s first season, in 1951-52, and ”Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined,” from season three, in 1953-54. Mendieta said that the episodes both involve visits to the Tropicana Nightclub, where Ricky performs with his band, which gives him the opportunity to do some of the musical numbers which are associated with Arnaz.

”The show stops where the original episodes stopped, for commercials. We have a singing ensemble called ”The Crystaltone Singers,” who perform actual jingles which were once performed with the ‘I Love Lucy’ show, for products such as Brylcream, a hair product which was an early sponsor of the series, and was known by a jingle which promised, ”A little dab will do ya.” People who saw the original broadcasts will be taken back to those days,” he said.

A medley of popular music from the 1950s has been worked into the script of the stage play, to be performed by the singers, and they will also perform roles in the shows, in addition to the performances of Lucy and Ricky, and their friends and landlords, Fred and Ethel Mertz.

I phoned Sirena Irwin and was taken aback, briefly, when the phone was answered in a throaty voice which very much resembled that of Lucille Ball, at least in the days before her heavy smoking turned her into a baritone.

She reported that the show which will be performed in Buffalo had its origins three years ago. It was created originally as a workshop, then was adapted to be performed in Los Angeles. That production was so popular and successful that it was re-mounted for Chicago, with some cast members the same and some new additions.

Success in a second city convinced producers that the show could succeed in nearly any city, so a third production was produced, for a tour. How long will she be ”puddling up” to cry and mocking her husband’s Spanish accent by asking her Ricky to ”’Splain himself?” She said that the tour is presently being booked into additional cities, more than 18 months months in advance, and no end date has been set, so it might be years down the road.

How did she come to be cast in the role? ”You know, I grew up in a family which never had a television, so I only knew of ‘I Love Lucy’ from friends talking about it,” she said. ”When I set out on my own, I watched a couple of episodes and enjoyed them, but the whole mythology of the show just didn’t catch on with me. But, one day, I was taking a class with Paula Stewart, the actress who played Lucy’s sister in the Broadway show ‘Wildcat.’ She told me I reminded her very much of Lucy, and she loaned me the complete set of DVDs of the entire show. Then I understood.”

Only a month later, Irwin’s agent phoned her and told she had obtained an audition for this role in this live show, about Lucy. ”I didn’t tell Paula I was trying out, because I was so nervous about it. When they announced in the Los Angeles Times that I was cast, she called me right up and asked why I hadn’t told her, and I had to admit I was scared I’d jinx myself.”

Irwin found her very brief visit to Jamestown to be a very emotional experience. She and Mendieta were only in town for about 24 hours and had to spend much of that rehearsing and performing, but she has promised the cast of the tour that they will come to Jamestown, sometime, during their performances in Buffalo, and will visit Ball’s childhood home, her grave in Lakeview Cemetery, and other sites which were important to her.

”I’ve performed as her, more than 300 times,” the actress said, ”But it made everything so real to see actual things from her life.”

She said the staff of the Lucy-Desi Museum opened the doors, late at night, after their single performance in Jamestown, and they had found the many costumes and props and sets in the museum to be very informative. She also enjoyed watching the filmed interviews with people from Jamestown who knew Ball or her husband, personally, and looks forward to having more personal contact with her ”character,” during the Buffalo productions of the show.

Sirena Irwin was born in Oregon, to a father who was a physicist and a mother who was a classical musician. ”My parents split, not long after I was born, and I lived many places, both here and in other countries. I guess that’s what makes it so easy for me to live with the constant travel of tours,” she said. ”Home is in Los Angeles, although I don’t spend a lot of time here.”

Unlike his stage wife, Bill Mendieta grew up watching episodes of ”I Love Lucy,” and watching classic films such as ”Forever Darling,” and ”The Long, Long Trailer,” starring both Ball and Arnaz, on television.

”My father had a big laugh, like Desi Arnaz, and he wore his hair much the same as the television actor, so there were many jokes in the family that he had played Ricky Ricardo when he was younger,” he said. ”When I learned that the actor in this show who played Ricky would get to act with those beautifully written scripts and would get to sing with the Ricky Ricardo Orchestra, I did everything I knew how, to get the role.”

As the months of performing pass by, he is finding it easier and easier to speak with the heavy Spanish accent for which Arnaz was known, and which was enhanced, rather than suppressed for comedy purposes. ”Some of the songs I sing are in Spanish, and sounding authentic in them is even more difficult than the speaking, which is supposed to be exaggerated,” he said. One way in which he is preparing is to immerse himself in Cuban culture, to get a better grasp on where Desi was coming from.

Mendieta also enjoyed his short visit in Jamestown, and expressed how impressed he was that our community truly seems to love Lucy, or at least Lucille Ball. Like Irwin, he is eagerly anticipating their visit with the entire cast of their show to the sites connected to the real life of Ball.

If you need a night of laughter and either happy memories or meeting a legend for the first time, you are cordially invited to 710 Main Street in the very near future. Tickets to the two preview performances are $42.50 and $52.50. Admission to regular performances are $5 more per ticket at both price levels. You can purchase tickets in person at the Shea’s Box Office, or at any Ticketmaster location. Purchase them with a credit card by phoning 800-745-3000 or by visiting the Ticketmaster website at www.ticketmaster.com. Group discounts for groups of 15 or more are possible, by phoning 829-1154.