When Dorothy heads down a certain lemon-hued pathway at Warren Wilson Theatre this May, she’ll be wearing silver slippers, and she’ll be in the company of women — an all-female cast, to be exact.
The silver slippers hearken back to L. Frank Baum’s book, The Wizard of Oz; the shoes were changed to ruby-red in the film because silver wasn’t enough of a contrast to the Yellow Brick Road.
But the all-female cast is pure Warren Wilson.
“I didn’t set out to do an all-female Wizard,” admits Graham Paul, Chair of Warren Wilson’s Theatre Department and director of the play. “Very few males auditioned,” he says, “and the females auditioning were particularly strong. So we cast all women, and then it got interesting.” Jenessa Schwartz plays Dorothy, and Courtney Clark and Rosa Sprinkle do turns as Glinda (the good witch) and The Wicked Witch of the West, respectively.
While Paul says some of the other women will portray male characters, some characters required a gender transformation. The Tin Man, for example, becomes a Tin Woman, “which makes the story of her romantic involvement with a Munchkin Maiden interesting,” Paul elaborates.
Dorothy’s role in the play also recalls the book rather than the movie version. “In Baum’s book, she’s a pretty spunky little girl,” rather than merely a confused child trusting to the whims of fate to return her home, says Paul.
“We’re trying to make Dorothy more of Baum’s adventurer and less of the film’s lost little girl,” he explains. One example is the way Dorothy eliminates the Wicked Witch. In the film’s famous “I’m melting” moment, Dorothy kills the Witch accidentally while trying to save the Scarecrow (whom the Witch has set on fire). However, “in the book Dorothy douses the Wicked Witch with water because she’s angry at being treated with disrespect,” says Paul. While the Warren Wilson production “kept the movie scene,” the actors “tweaked it a bit to give Dorothy back some of her chutzpah,” he continues.
The tweaking of Dorothy is an overall “effort to make her more active, more assertive, and less of a passive victim than in the movie — I’m hoping that kids, especially young girls, will identify with our Dorothy as much or more than with Judy Garland’s,” he explains.
With other characters, the iconic quality of the film actor’s performance is such that changes simply must be made. “Burt Lahr, for most people, is the Cowardly Lion,” Paul explains. “To try to duplicate Burt Lahr would not only be futile but uninteresting.” Still, Paul says he’s curious to see what the audience’s reaction will be to “a lion who looks and acts quite differently.”
Reinterpreting the tried-and-true, however, is as much a part of theater as greasepaint. Last year, when Warren Wilson did The Diary of Anne Frank, the actors portrayed the Frank family observing religious rituals — something the original script of the play does not include. Just last weekend, a Gardner-Webb University production of Richard III featured a mobster setting complete with gun-toting goons and a drug-abusing lead.
Of course, messing with an old favorite can come back to haunt a director.
“The risk is that people might hate it, but I really doubt that they’ll be offended,” says Paul, who reiterates that Warren Wilson’s Oz is child-friendly. Furthermore, in an effort to break from the movie, “we’ve released far more creative energy than we would have had we tried to reproduce the movie on stage,” he points out. A good bit of that creative energy will be demonstrated through visuals that include masks, shadow-puppets and Kabuki-ish stagehands. “Not only have the music director [Steven Williams], the choreographer [Julie Becton Gillum], and the designers [Beverly Ohler and Don Baker, with help from puppeteer Hobie Ford] been wildly imaginative, but the students in the cast have overflowed with ideas,” says Paul.
While he’s reluctant to “give away too much,” he will say that the crew and cast have gone out of their way to “theatricalize what were special effects in the film and to make the theatrical effects quite obvious.” According to Paul, “there’s a real power in using simple, transparent theater ‘tricks’ to create an effect on stage. So if we have a figure in black hand a character a prop or carry a sparkly ‘fireball’ from the Witch to the Scarecrow, we’re asking the audience to pretend that the black figure is invisible or that the fireball is ‘real,'” he explains. Paul says he hopes audiences will participate in the production by suspending their collective disbelief.
“Pretending is fun, and in my opinion, more fun than gasping at the apparent reality of an incredible special effect,” he emphasizes.
The Wizard of Oz will also be accompanied by a 15-member orchestra (made up of students and staff). The orchestra will be directed by Steven Williams, Chair of the Music Department and a big fan of Oz. “It’s a favorite of [his], and [he] suggested we ‘do something with it,'” says Paul.