“When I was a kid,” said my aunt Betsy after the Friday night premiere of A Wrinkle in Time at the Children’s Theatre Company, “they would have lost me at the part where the father tells the kids to recite the periodic table to keep the evil brain from entering their minds. I would have been like, ‘Those intellectual twits! My dad would have had us recite The Joy of Cooking.'”
Over the 49 years since the publication of Madeline L’Engle’s novel, A Wrinkle in Time has been warming the hearts of bookish kids who empathize with the heroes Meg and Charles Wallace. (One thing preppies and nerds have in common: going by their first and middle names together.) Though I was certainly a bookish nerd, L’Engle’s dark, abstract flights of fantasy never did much for me. The premise is similar to The Wizard of Oz, which CTC is also staging this season: a young girl (this time with her little brother instead of her little dog, and a boyfriend instead of a scarecrow) is whisked off to a fantasy world where she must save the world via feats of bravery, in the process learning to better appreciate her loved ones and (natch) herself.
L’Engle’s alternate-dimension dystopia is considerably creepier than L. Frank Baum’s, though—apple-throwing trees aside. The planet visited by Meg (Helena Scholz-Carlson) and Charles Wallace (Brandon Brooks) is ruled by a giant evil brain that imposes psychological control over its subjects, ruling with hate and fear. What’s the antidote? As my dad would say, you get three guesses and two don’t count.
The best thing about this production, freshly adapted by John Glore and directed by Greg Banks, is that it steers right into the weirdness of it all. The play begins with Scholz-Carlson tossing and turning in bed with nightmares, and in just a few minutes’ time Autumn Ness shows up to chew on the jet-black scenery (an effectively versatile design by Joseph Stanley) as Mrs. Whatsit, clad by costumer Mary Anna Culligan like Punky Brewster on Social Security. The kids are soon off with a loud bang and a blinding flash of white light, landing amidst creepy drone people and a skyscraper they must penetrate to find their missing father. Eventually, they confront a giant throbbing brain straight out of a 1950s creature feature. It’s probably too intense for very young children, but older children and stoned teenagers will think it’s way trippy.
Though the plot—both in Glore’s adaptation and, if you ask me, in the original novel—feels like something thrown together in the young adult fantasy kitchen at the last minute and zapped in the microwave, Glore does a good job of translating L’Engle’s wild fantasy to real-life action on a real-life stage. Banks and his cast keep straight faces against all odds, making this production one of the most genuinely creepy I’ve seen recently on any local stage. An encounter with an evil drone (Ness again) and the revealing of that heaving six-foot brain are thrillingly scary, so in-your-face that at the climactic confrontation with the brain I physically winced in anticipation of a Gallagher moment. (Don’t worry: no plastic sheeting is required, even for those in the front row.)
This new Wrinkle is a wonderfully theatrical show—you may roll your eyes occasionally, but you won’t want to shut them.