PROVO — What do you get when you take some Arthurian legends, mix in Christian and LDS theology, add a dash of 18th century Romanticism, and pour in some feminism? You get a unique theatrical experience called The Opposing Wheel.
The Opposing Wheel is something we don’t get on stage very often: high fantasy. Its magic and legends work together to tell a story about the approaching end of the world. Written by Mahonri Stewart, The Opposing Wheel tells the story of Ether Kimball, a young LDS man who has strange dreams that drag him into a realm on the border between full fantasy and our world. There, he meets a woman who belongs to a family that has been trapped in their castle for many generations and a strange warlock who can’t remember his past.
Jason Sullivan plays Ether as a regular guy who has the extraordinary gift to see glimpses of the future in his dreams. This, however, brings him into a conflict that has been going on for centuries and that he doesn’t totally understand. I thought Sullivan effectively portrayed both sides of his character’s psyche as Ether dealt with both the excitement of being swept into a new environment and the mourning of the kind of life he had always planned for himself. Jyllian Petrie played Magdalena, the woman trapped in the castle. I felt that Petrie played the feminist-in-distress well (especially in the first act), but when her personal relationship with Ether developed in the second act, I was disappointed by the lack of chemistry between the two. The words were there (such as when she suggests they go on a walk), but the emotional connection was not.
Jason Fullmer had the strange role of Daniel, the warlock who can’t remember his past. Daniel and Ether have complimentary gifts: Daniel is a master of magic and can sense the presence of spirits (Tempest, played by Brian Randall, and Frenzy, played by Rebecca Minson). I felt ambivalent about the character of Daniel. On the one hand, Fullmer has captured the subtle power of his character, which can be effectively seen when he explains to Magdalena why he brought Ether to her castle. On the other hand, I often felt like Fullmer’s version of Daniel had little of the gravitas that I felt the character warranted. I believe that if Daniel has had more dignity in his movements and actions (having him slapped twice in the same scene did not help with this issue), the character could have been much more interesting. Of course, some of this is an issue with the script.
What of the script? I think this is the first time I’ve ever been to a play where I can say that it’s a good story, but it’s in the wrong medium. Stewart’s script is complex and full of detail—like many high fantasy stories are—but on stage the audience is forced to digest all the details and relationships in less than two hours. Important exposition, like the prophecies, are relegated to a few lines of dialogue, whereas in a novel several pages would be spent discussing indispensable plot points. I also think that some of the magical spells came off as looking a little pathetic because in a live show the “magic” was limited to sound effects and the actor’s actions. In a novel, the only limit imposed on the action is the author’s imagination, of which Stewart has plenty. I strongly urge Stewart to turn this story into a 250-page novel and sell it to an LDS-oriented publisher.
In addition to the medium of theatre, I also believe that the story was limited by Heather Jones‘s directing. Jones is a competent director and she effectively guided the audience through the complex story. However, I felt like she did little to show the relationships among the characters. For example, I don’t think that Ether’s relationship with Daniel was thoroughly explored, especially because Ether is supposed to be furious at Daniel after the first scene, yet still has to work with him towards a common goal. That depth in the relationship seemed to be absent. In fact, I rarely felt like Jones and the actors in the play permitted character development that occurred to transfer into later scenes. I also felt like the urgency of the story was rarely present on stage. In the opening scenes, characters frequently spoke of massive worldwide consequences of their actions and how the end of the world was approaching. But in the second act, much of this was forgotten as the characters leisurely worked on interpersonal conflicts as if this were a domestic drama (albeit a domestic drama with spirits, prophecies, and characters from legend).
Visually, the play is performed in the right place: the Castle Amphitheater. This outdoor facility, built out of stone and cement to mimic a stereotypical castle, is ideal for a play that takes place entirely within a castle. I also enjoyed how the costumes (Heather Jones) were a smart blend of modern and medieval, which constantly reminded you that you were watching a story that takes place in the 21st century but also originates in the Arthurian era.
One final problem should be mentioned about the performance: At 9 PM the nearby Seven Peaks water park began their evening pool party, which included searchlights and loud music, and would continue long after the play ended. Of course, this was very distracting (and I almost wanted to cry when they started playing Rebecca Black’s song “Friday”). Thankfully, this was the last Seven Peaks party of the summer, but I’ve had this happen at the Castle before. So, I urge all theatre companies who use the Castle in the summer to check Seven Peaks’s calendar and not schedule any performances that conflict with their evening pool parties.
Overall, The Opposing Wheel is a suitable evening of theatre. It’s certainly a unique play performed in one of Utah County’s favorite theatrical venues. However, this likely won’t be one of my favorites plays of the year, thanks to the directing problems and the lack of relationships and urgency among the actors. But if you’re LDS and enjoy fantasy stories like the Narnia books, then the show should be irresistible.