I’d like to preface this review of Something Wicked This Way Comes at Huntington Beach Playhouse by putting a couple of things on the table first and foremost.
I am a big fan of the source material (both the book and the movie). While this may lead some to think this would make me overly critical of this production, I can safely say with a clear conscience that the opposite was true. I came to this performance with great hopes for it’s success. This isn’t an easy translation to the stage under the best of circumstances and I was curious and dare I say, excited to see how this version would pull it off. Which leads me to…
I have it under good authority that this production went from casting to opening night in just three weeks (about half the time most productions at this level are accustomed to rehearsing). I do not know the reasons behind this and do not care to speculate. However this is by it’s very nature a complex show to stage and design for and three total weeks seems almost criminal. I cannot unfortunately, review the show that this might have been, but must be content to review the show that was presented.
That being said, Something Wicked This Way Comes is a bit of a mess to say the least. I was not the sole patron among the audience present last Saturday to feel this way. The blackout transitions between scenes were filled by nervous whispers amongst the crowd asking what was exactly happening on stage, as well as nervous and slightly embarrassed laughter.
To try to list the reasons for this ultimately confusing piece of theater’s shortcomings would create a page count that would bore you. But I will try to hit on some of the salient points.
The first order of business in making a production accessible is that it be heard clearly. I can say with no reservation that I understood about fifty percent of what was said. I have no hearing problems and was treated to a wonderful seat only a few rows back from the lip of the stage. Diction and projection were serious issues in this show. Some of this can be laid at the feet of casting (more on this in a bit), but this is one area that simply must be addressed if the show is to be enjoyed in any future performances. If the story can’t be understood, it simply can’t be enjoyed.
Which leads me to script and staging. The theatrical adaptation used here is very big on talking about things that happen as opposed to showing them to you. This is not a problem unique to this script, but the staging did the text few favors.
To begin with the audience is treated to a very nice look upon walking into the space. Curtains and strands of fat bulbs are artfully draped to frame a projection screen with the play’s title on it. Effective background music plays, and the whole look and feel of the production seemed to draw me in. Unfortunately, it never got any better than this, and in fact got slowly and steadily worse.
The very thing that had seemed so clever at the outset became one of the biggest flaws of the production. The projection screen. It was the backdrop for every scene of this show. I kept hoping that once the main characters actually made it to the carnival, the screen would raise and finally reveal the real set… But no. Instead we are treated to one blurry image after another that does little to evoke any sense of where the characters are or what they might be doing. Additionally it’s use cuts an already shallow playing space in half, resulting in blocking that consists of characters walking in from one or both sides, meeting in the middle to talk, and then shuffling off to repeat the process. Every scene looks and feels exactly the same. And so a show that really should be pushing the envelope in terms of creative staging becomes boring. The director tries to alleviate this by having the two main characters climb long strips of fabric to the tops of scaffolding and boxes. Which they do ad nauseum. This is a show with about three tricks up it’s sleeve and it wants to show them to you again and again… And again. On occasion we do catch glimpses of the director’s hand in some attempt at inventive staging or evocative storytelling… But all too often I was forced to play the “What was the director going for?” game with myself. Most of it winds up seeming only half realized.
This brings me to the actors themselves. I cannot blame them entirely (though they can and should take responsibility for being heard), they are miscast almost to a person.
Our two main characters are Will and Jim – two thirteen year old boys. The fact that they are two thirteen year old boys is fairly important to the story. Here they are played by Zack Wheeler and Nique Haggerty-Wheeler, an adult (and presumably married?) man and woman. Okay before anyone gets up in arms: I KNOW trying to cast children is HARD. But these two do not even remotely look the part and Nique Wheeler’s portrayal of Jim is so high pitched and erratic we never for a moment think she’s even attempting to be a boy. The director then makes the mistake of putting them onstage with actual children (in one unintentionally hilarious instance, with a little boy in drag). Thus the suspension of disbelief is strained and is in fact casually tossed out the window by the actors themselves. I was treated to multiple instances of Jim Nightshade being referred to as “she” by his own cast mates.
Other actors of note are Michael Corcoran and Claudio Medina who play Mr. Halloway (Will’s aged father) and Mr. Dark (the circus proprietor and head baddie) respectively. Corcoran has one of the few fleshed out and nuanced performances in the production and the few scenes he gets to share with his son Will one on one are effective and at times even moving. Unfortunately they come so late in the show that the audience is well past the point of caring. Mr. Medina plays up the theatricality of Mr. Dark to the hilt and cuts quite a striking figure on stage. However he does speak with a fairly thick Argentinian accent that makes his dialog even more hazy than most. I would have liked to have seen his performance in a more intimate space where I could focus better on what he was bringing to the table.
The other performers unfortunately make very little impact. They fumble over their lines (and props) and generally share the same “what am I doing here?” glazed over look as the audience. It is difficult to tell what importance any of them have to the story or in fact, as we are often instructed to believe, that any of them is in any sort of peril.
I mentioned the script as possibly being problematic, but even as I write this, I can’t be sure. With the dialog being so garbled and the story so poorly told from a visual standpoint, it’s really hard to say. I defy anyone who is not already familiar with this story to follow the plot in even a general way. This gets more and more frustrating as the show moves along. Many of my fellow audience members who didn’t have a review to write simply gave up at intermission.
As such I will not be providing a story synopsis here. Not only because they are boring and fairly useless in a review, but also because I could not accurately trust myself to interpret what was happening on stage in any reliable way. I’ll just link to the book on Wikipedia. Go read that instead.
In short. I think Huntington Beach Playhouse is ultimately to blame for rushing out this under-cooked debacle. That they would charge twenty dollars for it goes beyond the pale. I take no pleasure in the fact that I cannot recommend this… But it is simply not competent theater.
When: Through November 14th. Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 2pm & 8pm.
Where: Huntington Beach Playhouse 7111 Talbert Ave, Huntington Beach, CA 92648 (located at the Central Library)
How much: $20 ($18 students/seniors)
Length: 1 hour, 30 minutes (with 15 minute intermission)
Call: (714) 375-0696