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Narnia Comes to Montpelier

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Narnia photo, partial cast, rehearsal 2022. Courtesy photo.
On a rainy April Saturday, members of the Vermont Youth Theater, along with director Mary Wheeler, gather in the basement of Montpelier’s Bethany Church to rehearse their newest production, “Narnia 2022.” They hope to transport central Vermont audiences to C.F. Lewis’s imaginary land from “The Chronicles of Narnia.”

They appear to have transported themselves as well. Nicky Service speaks from center stage, but the 13 year old has morphed into the character of Digory Kirke, a London professor with the accent of a BBC broadcaster. When Lucy Pevensie (played by Kathryn Stauffer) struggles to make those around her believe that Narnia exists, the mutinous look on her face reminds you of every misunderstood 11 year old. Then there’s Narnia’s White Witch (Elsha van Apeldoorn), as deliciously evil as anyone could hope. 

The cast has been rehearsing for almost two hours. They’ll be back to rehearse weekend after weekend until opening night on Saturday, May 14. 

Maya Kotkes-Cummings, who plays the excitable Mrs. Beaver, knows it’s worth it. “I was eight when I started with the Vermont Youth Theater. It’s very welcoming, very inclusive, like a big family. If someone gets a role you auditioned for, you congratulate them. Mary lets us know that every role is important. I’m so grateful to have this experience. I want the theater to always be a part of my life.” 

Alex Yahm-Halberg (who plays Mr. Beaver) adds “ I started when I was seven, when I was just beginning to learn to act. Now I’m much more comfortable on the stage,” Alex feels there are off-stage benefits as well, “I’m more confident … I find it easier to speak up in different situations.” 

Kathryn Stauffer finds it intriguing to be “someone else,” while Gigi Guerin (who plays Edmund Pevensie) believes “It’s fun, getting to interpret a character and to see how the production compares with the book.” 

Olive Estrin (Aslan, the Great Lion) says “It’s not the same as being on a sports team. It’s a different learning experience. You have to make yourself vulnerable.” Elsha (White Witch) agrees, “I’ve had to learn to let go, to understand my emotions better, so that I can play different roles.” 

In 2016, Wheeler (also an actor, director, and playwright) founded the nonprofit Vermont Youth Theater. It has since grown into an organization that includes hundreds of 5 to 18 year olds from all over Vermont. 

“Kids who are drawn to the performing arts are motivated and creative problem solvers,” she says. “They can begin as nonreaders or as readers, however, studying scripts helps to build reading skills. Some kids will practice their readings over the phone to each other. They develop their vocabulary, their public speaking skills, and confidence.” 

Past productions have included “The Snow Queen,” “Hero Prince of Ireland,” “The Neverending Story,” “Excalibur,”  and “The Princess and the Goblin.” Then, in March, 2020, while rehearsing “The Hobbit,” everything shut down. “Narnia 2022” marks their return to indoor performances. Wheeler beams at the thought. “We’re so excited … I tell them they’re giving a gift to the community.” 

“Narnia 2022” seems to be a particularly good choice for the return of live theater. So many adults remember their first glimpse of the iconic lamp post shining in that winter world. And children all over the world are still reading the Narnia stories. For Wheeler, the size of the cast gives her a special opportunity. “I want to get as many kids on the stage as possible.”

The rehearsal winds up, and the players giggle and chat with each other as they scoop up well-thumbed scripts. Wheeler smiles in obvious satisfaction. “They bring so much joy to what they do.” 

“Narnia 2022” will open at the Bethany Center for Spirituality and the Arts at 115 Main Street, Montpelier, Saturday, May 14 at 6:30 p.m. The opening will be followed by two performances on Sunday, May 15, at 3:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. For more information email fineartsbarn@gmail.com.

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