With so many holiday classics filling the airwaves, churches and theatres everywhere, it’s always a cause for great expectation when a potential addition to the perennial favourites list is born. The latest incarnation of Henry Van Dyke’s magical short story (The Other Wise Man) has morphed from a teleplay through a lavishly illustrated picture book (Susan Summers) and now to a full-length play as The 4th Wise Man. But in this new version, co-written by Tom Fontana and Kathleen Gaffney (Studio Arena Theatre’s artistic director) more than the title has changed. In a chestnut shell, the piece looks great but can’t find its tone.
To flesh out character and expand the theme of faith conquers all, several roles have been added and the methods of storytelling expanded, including puppetry and shadow painting. This provides for a visual feast on Donald Eastman’s practical and functional one-piece desert set. Michele Costa has created a marvellous array of puppets (the hero’s family members are especially apt) that are ably moved about the stage by the veiled Puppeteer Ensemble (Clint Byrne, Affirm Djonbalic, Bennett Ferguson, Jessica Huber, Kevin Morrison and Megan Townsend), but the unmoveable lips belie every speech—where’s Ronnie Birkett when needed? Their voices are provided by Miriam Silverman and Darin de Paul, as they literally step out of their other roles, move to one side and declaim their lines. This combination of visual lip lock and not even the pretence of the colourful marionettes speaking for themselves robs the scenes of any make believe that should be igniting squeals of delight from our precious children, which in turn could spill over to their jaded parents, producing a Miracle on Main Street.
The Praetorian Guard is brought to life with gusto by Daniel Walker, yet he and his near-albino cohorts convince no one that they have ever set foot in Rome much less protect it. And the early-on “Nice spear” crack should be banished to cheap-laugh purgatory. Is this The Tonight Show on location in Damascus or a parable about the long-term benefits of short-term inconvenience in the service of the sick, hungry or naked?
The playwrights have opted to weave the journey of Artaban (Paolo Andino, who lifts his part off the page but occasionally spices it with an ounce too much zeal), as he follows the star to Bethlehem but—through humanitarian delays—arrives after the fabled Wise Men have already left, into a fabric that is hard to wear with conviction. Orontes (Darin de Paul), his constant companion and slave, most certainly keeps the action moving along, but his cut ups and quips keep the adults dutifully chortling while the kids begin to have visions of PlayStation 3.
As Artaban follows the long-lost trail of Jesus for decades, he gradually loses his three gifts (sapphire, ruby and a pearl). Those moments are wonderfully staged by director Christopher Eaves and set aglow by Stephen Quandt’s lighting design, visually echoing Joseph’s Amazing Dreamcoat. More moments like these would go a long way to declaring this a “must-see” instead of a nice-for-a-change production.
Another addition to the tale is the role of “A Boy” (shared by Joseph Westphal and Henry Wojtasik). The deaf/mute lives his life—literally!—in a sandbox. From there, he silently comments on the plot and mimes what he sees around him, using action figures as symbols. While much of this seems contrived (with countless nativity scenes in our memory banks, a few molded figurines only pale in comparison), the revelation of the death of Artaban’s father produces a genuine moment that, if replicated earlier, would also add to the power of this “lost” soul.
Eaves makes good use of his forces and keeps the pace moving forward at nearly every turn. The backlit tableaus effectively depict the off-stage narrative such as the wholesale slaughter of Jewish children by the God-fearing Romans.
Act I ends with the theft of Artaban’s pearl. Orontes extols the crowd to come back later, then the guard thumps his spear and assumes the sentry position. Dutifully, we shuffle off to the foyer’s oasis, eager for refreshment and “watering.” Surprisingly, when we return the Praetorian has abandoned his post. This lack of continuity (even better if he’d stared us down for the entire intermission—many of the younger set would hang on in the hall, trying to make him blink) and dissolution of the dramatic effect, clearly demonstrates both the promise of the material and a hit-and-miss realization that—with one more re-write—could ensure its place in Christmas Future for years to come. JWR