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Big crowds welcome C. S. Lewis’ play, ‘The Great Divorce,’ to Kansas City

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The national tour of C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce provides theatergoers with look at the journey to Heaven and Hell in a “provocative” exploration of human nature that features strong, vivid characters from the artistic mind of creator, Lewis, said Max McLean, artistic director of Fellowship for the Performing Arts.

Three vastly talented actors portrayed about 30 different characters in the two performance show that played at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts on Sat., Feb. 1. The Great Divorce played to large crowds in the Muriel McBride Kauffman Theater, mostly used for musical theater performances.

The Great Divorce stars Tom Beckett (Bobby Boland, Epic Proportions and The Father on Broadway and Elbridge Gerry in HBO's John Adams), Joel Rainwater (The Lion King, National Tour) and Christa Scott-Reed (The Pitmen Painters on Broadway). All actors navigate their way through the difficult pieces of this play with great ease. In The Great Divorce, they must create different characters with a minimum of sets and costume, which means only the most talented of actors could qualify for this job.

McLean said that budgeting was an issue in the development and adaptation of this production. He said to use a full casting with over 30 actors for short scenes would doom the production before it got started. The use of only three actors did not create a problem for audiences because the play is so carefully conceived and staged.

In a talkback after the production, McLean said he had considered a fourth character for the narrator, but thought is was not necessary with the caliber of actors he had assembled and the fact that the narrator would not have equal participation in the performance time as the other actors did.

In The Great Divorce characters act out varied sequences with others in another dimension of reality. They travel from Hell to Heaven. Each character brings new questions and insights into what leads from one existence to another. Suffice it to say, it’s all about choices people make and perspectives.

The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts hosed the premier national touring production that visits Charlotte, Charleston, Cleveland, Colorado Springs, and Columbus in 2014.

Previously, Fellowship for the Performing Arts produced The Screwtape Letters, which, the group said, enters it’s fourth year after playing over 50 major American cities. Box office records indicate that over 350,000 persons have viewed The Screwtape Letters including runs in New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.

Because of the continued success of The Screwtape Letters, McLean wanted to adapt The Great Divorce for the stage, he said.

"This is Lewis at his imaginative best," McLean said. In The Great Divorce, several of Lewis' most provocative characters take a bus ride from Hell to Paradise. But the bizarre question the play asks: Will they like it? Will they prefer Hell to Heaven? Are the doors of Hell really locked from the inside?”

McLean suggested that The Great Divorce will return to Kansas City and that even The Screwtape Letters will also make another Kansas City appearance soon.

Three actors transform into over a dozen different personality types to tell this fantastical morality tale about good and evil. Similar literary pieces explored the dimensions of Heaven and Hell, most notably, Dante’s Divine Comedy, so the notion of man’s ponderance of the afterlife is no new concept. But, each author takes a different glance at the expectations.

In The Great Divorce, on the bus is a man who is going to demand his ‘rights’ and a woman who can't stop grumbling. Characters also include a gentleman who ‘likes’ Heaven, but staying there means giving up his precious pet lizard. A world traveler who believes Heaven and Hell are just a propaganda stunt run by the same people helps develop the cast of characters. As each ghost is welcomed by a celestial spirit, the choice of staying or going back brings vivid clarity to the “great divorce” between Heaven and Hell.

The Great Divorce requires audiences to think. The 10-15 minute talkback afterward by McLean allows for questions to be answered, thoughts to be more fully fleshed out, and help some understand how and why the play differs from the Lewis classic.

McLean explained why and how some scenes were tried and did not make the cut into the final production.
"There are only two kinds of people in the end," Lewis writes in The Great Divorce, "those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.'" The Great Divorce remains one of Lewis' most influential pieces and rightly earns its place among classics such as The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity.

Fellowship for the Performing Arts is based in New York City with Max McLean as Founder and Artistic Director. Adapted by McLean and Brian Watkins, The Great Divorce is Directed by Bill Castellino, with the creative team including Executive Producer and General Manager Ken Denison of Aruba Productions, Scenic Designer Kelly James Tighe, Costume Designer Nicole Wee and Lighting Designer Michael Gilliam. Original Music and Sound Design are by John Gromada with Projections by Chris Kateff.

Fellowship for the Performing Arts' production of The Great Divorce celebrates the legacy of C.S. Lewis’ profoundly influential life and honors the 50th anniversary of his death on Nov. 22, 1963. In 2013, on that date, Lewis received one of Britain's highest honors, a memorial in Poets' Corner joining such legends as Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens.
To find out more about The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters, visit the website: greatdivorceonstage.com.

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