Chris Mangels’ ambitious and visually charged new production of Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” — which continues through Saturday at the College of the Sequoias in Visalia — is dark stuff, indeed.
So dark, in fact, that I somewhat regret that in my advance piece on the show in last week’s issue of 7 I so heavily emphasized the family-friendly nature of the show. True, this show lacks the specific red flags for objectionable material that might put parents on edge (explicit violence, excessive profanity, sexual situations). But I think Mangels has missed the mark if he thinks he’s made a show “that local families could see together but still maintain the type of theatricality and visceral thrill that attracts me as an artist,” as he told me.
Again, I feel this way not so much due to objectionable content but because of the production’s overall tone and demeanor: It gets bogged down in its overwhelmingly bleak world. Bradbury’s philosophical musings about mortality, childhood fears and middle-aged angst become a morass, not a platform for crisp storytelling.
Photo: Danielle Behrens, left, James Sherrill and Jenny Bettencourt in “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”
In the show’s haltingly staged first scenes, we meet the two young major characters: Will (Danielle Behrens) and Jim (Jenny Bettencourt), best friends and next-door neighbors on the cusp of manhood, who scramble through their 1933 small town environs with expected vitality. When a mysterious carnival arrives in town, the boys, alone among all the townspeople, seem to recognize the potential for malevolence brought by these uninvited visitors. The one adult eventually willing to see what evil these newcomers represent is Will’s father, Charles (Mark Halloway, who needed stronger direction), and his relationship with his son deepens even as they face ever stranger dangers.
The first act feels long, slow and murky. Even the arrival of the carnival performers, who range from such oddities as The Lava Eater to The Human Worm, seems to unfold with a lethargic pace. (Love those costumes, though.) With the second act, as the storyline coalesces (and grows ever more bizarre), the show finally starts to find its footing. A standout performer is James Sherrill as Mr. Dark, whose brooding demeanor and piercing vocal delivery makes him come across less as stock villain and more as a terrifying unknown.
There’s no doubt that Mangels, working with a distinguished creative team (James McDonnell as costume and make-up designer, Steve Lamar as technical director and lighting designer, Nick Terry as co-scenic designer and co-sound designer), has an eye for spectacular stagecraft. There are individual moments of visual amazement in “Something Wicked”: a scale-model carousel that actually rotates on stage; bizarre side-show creatures who cavort and shimmy on stage; creepy masks; life-size puppets; a haunting rogue balloon that seems to stalk a small town. One of my favorite visual moments comes when the carnival train arrives in the dead of night, with the middle third of the audience almost pinned to their seats by the intense illumination coming from the front of the train. Mirrors, lights and shadows all play prominent roles in the production, as if we’re being whipped through a carnival fun-house.
But something fundamental has been lost in translation from book to stage. Curiously, it’s not because Bradbury’s deeper themes have been excised. Instead, it seems to be a case in which the author’s psychological/spiritual musings don’t travel well from one medium to another. When a character (or narrator) is forced to speak what he thinks, it can take on an entirely different tone. What reads as profound on the page can sound didactic when verbalized.
Some of the casting and production choices Mangels made did not help in this regard. The narrator in the show (Shawn Paregien), who is prerecorded, comes across as wooden. And I don’t think it worked to cast two young women as the leading boys in terms of stage presence and emotional resonance.
Still, it’s exciting to see a little-performed production such as “Something Wicked,” and I greatly admire the gumption it took for Mangels and his team to attempt something so bold and challenging. By the time the opening night performance I saw played itself out, I found myself starting to get caught up in the themes of mortality, loss and — most important — possibilities.