There are a lot of amazing events in Philly, but every once in a while there’s one that makes you proud to be a Philadelphian. Last night, at the opening of The Great and Terrible & the Small and Meek, I was proud to be a human. This play, or rather journey, used Bartram’s Garden as the setting to retell the classic movie The Wizard of Oz. If you’ve never been, Bartram’s Garden is the oldest botanical garden in the country (all the way back to the 18th century), and its natural features made a stage more perfect than the most skilled set designer.
Around an eerie dead tree reminiscent of the White Tree of Gondor, nearly fifty people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and ages banded together to put on a performance that not only captured the love and nostalgia of the original Oz, but built upon it. Their fearless leader – Donna Oblongata. Director/visionary, she has a knack for creating experiences that transcend the norm. Though based in Philadephia, she travels around the country fostering a community of absurdly talented and dedicated individuals who make up her untheater troupe.
By Oblongata’s preference most of them don’t have traditional training (not that you would know it), and from my understanding, the only payment is a sense of awesomeness. Everyone in the cast was so present and emotive, my friends and I found ourselves discussing the non-speaking roles just as much as anyone else. As far as the main characters, the combination of expected and otherwise was perfect. Sometimes retellings can wander too far from the path of the original, but in this case, casting choices were the right combination of familiar and fantastical.
The scope of this production was unreal. The size of the cast, the impeccable use of Bartram’s garden, the layers and layers of set design… oh, and I didn’t even mention the original score. Though the feelings of the time-honored ballads were kept, all new and beautifully performed compositions were scattered throughout the night. To successfully alter a classic such as The Wizard of Oz requires some serious skill, and beyond that, at least a little bit of magic. There were a few glitches here and there, but they were carried away by the tornado (or hot air balloon, or eaten by a giant monster head, or burned up by hypnotic fireballs), never to be thought of again.
To learn more about this masterpiece, check out their Facebook for info. Tickets are $15 suggested donation, but you will likely feel compelled to donate more afterwards, so come prepared. Remember this is a renegade outdoor performance, so bring a blanket or chairs. As you walk back after the performance (if you’re adventurous take a nighttime stroll through the historic gardens instead of the main road), and come upon to the Philly skyline framed by beautiful Bartram’s Garden, you’ll have the feeling “there’s no place like home.”