Bringing new life to "Oz" in Syracuse
Syracuse Stage incorporates circus performers in its new take on L. Frank Baum's classic, "The Wizard of Oz."
By Jonathan Williams | Nov. 30, 2017
Performing as poppies, actors bend, jump and flip, extend their arms and contort their bodies in ballet-like movements. Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Tinman and Cowardly Lion are seduced to sleep by the poppies’ deadly movements on their journey to the Emerald City. The scene is athletic and strenuously physical: actors are sweating and panting after each run. It’s also emblematic of the artistic twist this production of “The Wizard of Oz” takes by using trapeze and acrobatic feats from the circus to infuse fresh energy into the show.
Bringing something new to the story beloved by generations is what originally attracted Syracuse Stage to “Oz.” The company’s holiday show is in co-production with SU Drama and 2 Ring Circus, who choreographed the and will run more than 40 performances from Nov. 29 through Jan. 7. Joe Whelan, director of communications and marketing for Syracuse Stage, says 2 Ring Circus is able to bring out the physical and visual elements of the show: “It’s always great if you can get people to see something in a story they know that they haven’t seen before.” Director Donna Drake, who is choosing to tell the story from the perspective of Dorothy’s nightmare agrees, and says this is not your typical Oz, “We have circus in almost every scene.”
Written more than a century ago, L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” is a foundational text that has been reimagined many times. Starting with the 1939 film musical, “The Wizard of Oz” starring Judy Garland gave audiences an escape from the turmoil of the Great Depression and World War II. There’s also 1978’s “The Wiz” with Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, and even animated versions like “Tom and Jerry and The Wizard of Oz.” The story also become a hit musical in 2003 with “Wicked” and is still running today. Most recently, 2013’s “Oz the Great and Powerful,” starring James Franco, showed a significantly darker version of Oz that shares similarities to Drake’s show, emphasized through the circus aspects.
Choreographer Joshua Dean says the show is visually different through the aerial, trapeze and other circus work the actors do – including handstands. Trapeze is a central focus of the production: actors are in the air performing a Spanish web where they swing from a long rope contorting their bodies. Others, acting as trees, will walk on stilts, 10 feet in the air. Dean says he choreographed the show from the standpoint of a creature, as many of the characters are not human. He approaches each character’s movements differently, noting that the Munchkins are “quirky” while the Ozians in the Emerald City are “bureaucrats,” reflected in their movements.
The story is also a local one. Baum was born in nearby Chittenango Falls and declares in his introduction to “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” that his work is a “modernized fairy tale.” There are many differences in the book to what popular culture has told audiences about the land of Oz: the ruby slippers Dorothy wears are silver, and the Tin Woodman only became the Tinman after the Wicked Witch of the East enchanted his ax to cut off his legs, arms and head. Those who live in the Emerald City must wear green tinted glasses that are locked to their head. The Wicked Witch of the West has only one eye and charges crows, wolves, black blees and the Winkies, who she has enslaved, to carry out her deeds. Even stranger, the Witch has a Golden Cap with rubies around it that grants the user three requests from the winged monkeys.
Some of the characters portrayed only in the book and not in film adaptations appear in Drake’s production. Jitterbugs, Winkies and Crows are straight from Baum’s book. The text shows the story’s darker roots and how the costumes and scenic choices of the production echo its world.
Costumes by designer Jessica Ford add another layer to the show, heightening the darker elements of some characters. The Scarecrow’s face is a Jack-o’-lantern with a broom on top of his head. The Tinman is in the style of steampunk – a science fiction genre that combines technology with modern aesthetics. The Jitterbugs wear intricately-made masks and the Munchkins are small creatures who mine emeralds to send to the Emerald City and are frightening for Dorothy, Drake says. Glinda and the Wicked Witch are also quite different from previous incarnations. The first wears an elegant “haute couture” dress that allows for agile trapeze work, according to Drake, and the other is dangerous and more like Maleficent from Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” film.
Drake’s show changes scenically many times, and set designer Linda Buchanan’s minimalist vision allows for pieces of the production to be taken easily on and off the stage. Drake says, when Dorothy, the Tinman, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion go to the Emerald City the set consists only of the tall gates that open to city.
Directing “Oz” is a return home for Drake, after leading four productions of it, including a national tour with actor Mickey Rooney. Dorothy, the Tinman and Scarecrow, are played by current SU Drama students. She says the students have been receptive to her directing style.
“When I direct, I tend to direct almost start to finish emotionally,” she said. “They’re very good about me getting in there and getting to the heart of it.”
Kate Jarecki, a sophomore, who plays Dorothy, sang in rehearsal an earnest “Over the Rainbow” with strong vibrato, range and control. Jarecki played Dorothy in a 2015 production in Illinois. Dorothy, a girl on the verge of womanhood, is loving, hopeful and yet gritty – becoming more aware of evil in the world as she travels through Oz.
For generations who have grown up with the “Wizard of Oz,” Drake hopes audiences will see the universal truth of the story. “Sometimes we have to go to really far away to not so pretty places to learn our lessons, to know there’s no place like home.”
Jonathan Williams is a journalist and graduate of Linfield College with a dual major in English and mass communication. He recently reported an in-depth multimedia article on how public libraries and librarians in Oregon are providing vital services for homeless people. Jonathan, a native Oregonian, served as editor-in-chief of the Linfield Review and also interned at Oregon Public Broadcasting, where he worked for the weekly arts and culture show “State of Wonder.” His interests include fine art, classical music and literature.