Blending elements of fairy tales, gothic mystery, fantasy, and historical fiction, Robert Beatty’s young-adult novel Serafina and the Black Cloak chronicles the title character’s quest to solve the mystery of the Man in the Black Cloak and his link to the children who are one by one disappearing from the Biltmore Estate.
Staging Serafina—as the Playmakers at Lenoir-Rhyne University recently did—poses a number of challenges, not the least of which involves condensing the action of a novel to a one-act script. With impressive economy, the Playmakers captured the spirit of Beatty’s novel. Using minimal set pieces, props, and costumes, projecting screen images on either side of the stage, and breaking the fourth wall, their production of Serafina and the Black Cloak conveyed a strong sense of both character and place.
Breaking the fourth wall proved particularly effective for the Playmakers, offering one solution to the problem that adapters face, namely how to convey information the audience needs, but that characters would not say in dialogue. Speaking directly to the audience at the beginning of the play, Serafina (Callie Cope) recounted how she and her father, the Vanderbilt’s machine mechanic, live secretly in the basement of the Biltmore mansion.
The Biltmore house, itself, remained a presence throughout the play as a backdrop in the form of a triptych of painted cloth panels draped over black curtains. Actors entered and exited through the openings in the curtains, creating the appearance that they were entering and leaving the mansion.
Entrances and exits occurred frequently and rapidly, with six of the ten actors performing multiple speaking roles (two to four) and many also playing additional nonspeaking roles, including rats, horses, trees, tombstones, gallery portraits, statues, and ventilation shafts.
Lightning-fast costumes changes required minimal alterations in appearance: an actor in theatre blacks pulling on a horse mask, for instance. Such simplicity served the story well, underscoring its place in the realm of fantasy, where the lines between human and animal blur and shift.
To fashion a sense of the vast forest that surrounds the estate and the action that takes place there, director Elisabeth Bokhoven integrated clips of the actors filmed in the woods. In the scene where Serafina’s Father, “Pa” (Chase Fowler) reveals where he found her (50-52 in Beatty’s novel), Pa and Serafina become a tableau vivant, frozen on stage, as the large screens that framed them projected a film clip of Pa in the woods, the camera following him through the trees to the spot where he finds the bundle that holds the infant Serafina.
No stage production of a fantasy story can create the special effects that a film can, but integrating film into a stage production with innovative set and costume design, and actors breaking the fourth wall, reminds audiences of the immense possibilities of theatre when dramatists use their imaginations to develop creative solutions. What the Lenoir-Rhyne Playmakers brought to life in their adaptation of Serafina and the Black Cloak displayed the real magic of the craft.
Beatty, Robert. Serafina and the Black Cloak. 2015. Disney Hyperion, 2016.
Serafina and the Black Cloak. By Robert Beatty, adapted by Elisabeth Bokhoven, Callie Cope, Chase Fowler, Milissia Kocelik, and Heather Osterer, directed by Elisabeth Bokhoven, performances by Callie Cope, Chase Fowler, Caleb Hoyle, Milissia Koncelik, Ashton Pesterfield, Hannah Saunders, Ariona Smith, Taylor Thomas, and Corey Smith, LR Playmakers, 14 Apr. 2018, Lenoir-Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.