Barnard’s Glicker-Milstein Theater has never looked so bare. The black-box stage is unadorned, save for four wooden frames covered in transparent film, a table filled with props, and one solitary microphone. The cast and crew of Columbia University Players’ adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s novel “A Wrinkle in Time” rush around the stage busily; it’s difficult to distinguish cast from crew, as all the costumes are similarly unembellished. Despite the lack of decoration, though, the room is thrumming with excited energy.
The lack of a dominant set facilitated the performance rather than hindered it. “A Wrinkle in Time” is a difficult story to adapt to the stage visually, as the novel deals with time travel and takes place on a variety of planets. However, director Talley Murphy, BC ’17, and producer Jackie Brown, CC ’19, turned L’Engle’s tale into a performance that relied more on the audience’s imagination than on anything else.
The play opened with claps of thunder as Meg, played by Rachel Cramer, BC ’17, recited, “It was a dark and stormy night” over and over. The rest of the cast filled in, supplementing the soundtrack with their own windy howls. They acted as a Greek chorus throughout most of the play, enhancing scenes with sounds and movement in the background to mirror the action taking place.
Dramaturg Maddie Pages, BC ’17, had faced the difficult task of bringing the novel’s exposition to life onstage. The rapid speed of transitioning through the first few scenes and exchanging complex ideas within them through fast-paced dialogue came off somewhat dry and disjointed. For instance, when Meg and her love interest, Calvin (played by Rowan Hepps Keeney, BC ’18), discussed the sudden disappearance of her dad, a woman routinely interrupted. The unintroduced woman regularly interjected with an abrupt, matter-of-fact speech on NSA lobbying guidelines with a slideshow projected on the back wall. There was no explanation for her appearance. However, after the introduction of the charismatic trio of Mrs. Whatsit (played by Schuyler Van Amson, CC ’17), Mrs. Who (Maeve Duffy, BC ’17), and Mrs. Which (Rose Meriam, CC ’19), the pace quickened and the characters could finally begin their travel through the universe, the long period of exposition finished.
Murphy approached the challenge of staging interdimensional time travel through interpretive dance. Actors swayed, twirled, and jumped in unison to electronic music as an image of hurtling space was projected behind them. It was evident that not all of the actors were trained dancers, but what they lacked in technical skill, they made up for in enthusiasm. The “new world” they entered was signaled by a change in lighting from red to yellow, reflecting the happier mood of the world they described. The characters also relied on descriptive dialogue to help audience members envision scenes in their minds; Meg, her brother Charles Wallace, and Calvin described ideas through dialogue, leaving the finer details to the audience’s imagination.
Breaking the fourth wall wasn’t uncommon during the production. The characters transitioned between worlds using tesseracts, a type of travel utilizing the fifth dimension, which they called “tessering.” Before one such transition, Joey Santia, CC ’17, who played Charles Wallace, stopped the action with an announcement, “This transition takes a while.” If the audience could hold on for a second, he requested, the play would be back in a moment; in the interim, he would answer audience members’ questions.
In addition to this fourth-wall breakage, there were plenty of sly winks and asides scattered throughout the performance. For example, when Mrs. Whatsit used the play’s name in dialogue, Mrs. Which winked. In this way, the actors managed to blur the lines between fiction and reality—breaking the physics of a typical performance much in the way characters break the physics of travel while tessering. Mrs. Which’s aside was met with uproarious laughter from the audience, and served to endear the audience to the characters.
The cast members weren’t just characters: They were sounds, concepts, and narrators as well. Because of this, each actor in the eight-person cast had to be larger than life, flexibly switching between roles in the blink of an eye. Each member did an excellent job of keeping up high energy, despite the lack of breaks or offstage time. The sparsity of the set revealed the emotional core that carried the performance, one that ended in a tense 20-minute climax in which Meg and her dad reunited and saved her brother from the grips of the play’s nebulous antagonist, referred to only as the “Black Thing.”
Despite the ominous mood, at its heart, the play’s message is one of love. “Love is like tessering; it makes time and space dissolve,” Mrs. Whatsit explains just before Meg returns to a foreign world to single-handedly find her brother. This led to the most emotional moment of the play, in which both Meg and Charles Wallace overcame their fear with bold declarations of familial love. It’s interesting that there was no physical representation of the the “Black Thing” in the scene; instead, the audience relied on Santia’s masterful acting as he grappled with his mind being taken over by the darkness.
Instead of a traditional ending, Meg described the play’s conclusion. “Love is supposed to conquer fear, but it’s hard to be sure of it right now,” she said directly to the crowd as her cast members stood behind her. “Maybe some of us don’t make it out … but we still want to love each other right here.”
There were no bows. The cast instead pulled members of the audience on stage with them until it filled up, everyone standing in a line holding hands, as they sang an a cappella rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound.” The fourth wall had been broken once and for all; actors and audience members were now indistinguishable from one another. There were no more physical or narrative limits—only an outpouring of love and solidarity.