Jabberwocky, spun from Lewis Carrol’s nonsense poem, walks audiences through the adventures of not only the characters but also of the children themselves. Northwestern’s hallways transform into a maze-like world where the inhabitants of the play feel close and personal but are also the required six-feet-away. Spatial limitations have always been a part of theatre long before COVID. It is literally ingrained in the origin of the word: “Theatre” comes from the Greek word “theatron” which translates to “the seeing place.” There is no art without a place to perform and a place to watch, this prominent rule is what separates theatre from other art forms. And in the time of COVID, stripping away the physical place of theatre has left audiences unfulfilled. Yes, it’s nice to watch Zoom plays and livestreams, but watching from a screen will never satisfy. However, it’s imaginative stagings, like Jabberwocky, that combat this emptiness. Transforming theatre into an immersive experience for children not only produces unique storytelling, but brilliantly makes obstacles opportunities by changing what this “seeing place” is. Plus, the joy from the young audience members offers vicarious jubilation for the at-home audience.
These opportunities start with Ethan Koerner, adapter and director. Carrol’s poem is a short 166 words long, so how do you adapt it into a play that’s longer than the 84-minute read time? Koerner was inspired by the multiple readings he has done to his daughter. The nonsense names of the creatures and the steady pace quickly create an imaginary world in the minds of younglings, and it was Koerner’s job to translate that. With visuals either projected or done with puppetry that Koerner designed (with his assistants Ryan Altman, Sofia Schaeffer, Juliana Van Gorp) we can see that imaginary word start to form. The visuals walk the line between intricate enough to follow along and vague enough so the youngsters can imagine themselves as the hero slaying the title creature.
The young audience members, who seem to be between the ages of six and eleven, form a small squad thanks to the Tour Guide. These conductors trail the train of children through multiple viewing areas that bestow individual chapters of the tale. The three-dimensional personalities of the performance come to life beyond the scenography thanks to the powers of sound and light, both designed by Drew Schmidt. Yes, the projected epics are wonderful to watch, but true immersion depends a lot on the interim in between. Schmidt’s talents encompass building hallways and outside offices, creating a comprehensive world which you travel through with the show’s protagonist. Some of the best scenes are at the beginning. We start with flat, storybook-like puppets where a father kisses his son goodnight. And then when the boy wakes up to start his quest, the puppetry shifts to silhouetted people on sticks in a wonderfully crisp projection.
Jabberwocky has enough whimsy that you practically taste it through the screen. The students at Northwestern College led by Ethan Koerner have not only created a quaint quirky play but have also shown that in hard times champions adjust. Can’t fill a 196-seat theatre with children? Then let them out of the seats and let them slay the monster in the story. Through making the “seeing place” inhabit wherever it works, theatre is changing and adapting. This is a part of COVID theatre that I hope stays after all the vaccines and masks: Theatre should be a close, personal, and accessible experience for everyone. Now excuse me, I have to go wield my sword and fight the monsters.