Enchanted theater group grows beyond its former playhouse

Enchanted Playhouse Theatre Co. is thriving at the Visalia Fox Theatre while its former home is exiting the spotlight and being converted into a virtual golf driving range

VISALIA – Two weeks after plans were unveiled to convert the Main Street Theatre into a virtual golf driving range, the longtime tenant of the theater is thriving on a larger stage.  

Enchanted Playhouse Theatre Co. will premier its latest play, “The Magician’s Nephew”, tonight, Feb. 23 at the Visalia Fox Theatre. This will be the fourth play Enchanted Playhouse has performed at the Fox since it debuted on the venerable stage with another C.S. Lewis classic, “Prince Caspian”, in October 2019. The community theater company previously performed at the publicly-owned Main Street Theatre for 27 years before the city decided to sell the building for redevelopment in 2018.

Enchanted Playhouse President Shanna Meier said the hardest part about losing the downtown theater was that many in the community misunderstood that the shows would go on. Enchanted’s re-emergence at the Fox Theatre was stifled by the COVID-19 pandemic just as it finished its second show there. Under the state’s emergency shut down of indoor venues in 2020, The Visalia Fox was unable to reopen to the public until September 2021. Luckily, Enchanted was able to find a new venue thanks to the Visalia Rawhide and held several plays there throughout the last two years.

To this day, Meier said she still meets people who thought the theater company folded with the shuttering of the Main Street Theatre.

“We’re not shut down. We’re alive and well,” Meier said. “Even though we lost the theater, we are stronger than we ever were before. We have had to adapt to new things and I think that has definitely made us a stronger organization.”

“The Magician’s Nephew” is the third Narnia book presented by Enchanted in the last four years, including “Prince Caspian” and the “Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” in 2019. It is the last book published by C.S. Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia but is actually a prequel that sets up the rest of the stories. If you have ever wondered how Narnia came to be, where the wardrobe came from or the origins of the White Witch and Aslan the Lion, this story is for you.

The story follows young Digory (Maddox Verissimo) and his friend Polly (Alyssa Harris) who, through the use of magic rings created by Digory’s uncle, the magician (Bob Verissimo), set forth on a series of magical adventures through mythical kingdoms and enchanted lands. In the travels, they encounter Queen Jadis (Sheriahna Irvin) and awaken her from her enchanted sleep, unleashing the power of evil. Attempting to acquire the healing apple for Digory’s sick mother, the heroic children unintentionally bring Jadis’ evil into Narnia, the new world that the great lion Aslan (Cliff Ayers) sings into existence. In this land of talking animals, there are miraculous happenings as good battles against evil and Digory struggles to return home to cure his ailing mother with the healing apple.

Showtimes at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 23 and Friday, 24 and 4 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 25. Tickets are $10 per person. There will be copies of “The Magician’s Nephew” novels, lion keychains and goodie bags for sale in the lobby. All proceeds benefit the non-profit community theater which does not charge a fee for anyone to participate as actors in their plays. Costumes, makeup, production technology and stage design are all paid for through fundraisers and donations. There will also be a raffle. Those wanting to donate a stuffed animal to the District Attorney’s Office’s Child Abuse Response Team (CART) will get a free raffle ticket for each donation.

The play is being directed by Meier, Irvin and Student Director Alyssa Ellis.

“This story is all about faith, hope and love and how they conquer all,” Meier said. “It’s a stark difference from how many see the world today.”

New Players

The play features two newcomers well known to the community, including Joe Ross, community relations director for the Visalia Rawhide, and Golden West High School history teacher Bob Verissimo. Ross plays the role of Uncle Lenny, who is skeptical of Uncle Andrew’s magic. Ross grew up in Lindsay and was a regular on stage for the Lindsay Community Theatre for more than 20 school and community plays before graduating from Lindsay High School.

“Growing up in Lindsay, I never thought there’d be any shot of me performing on the largest stage in the area,” Ross said of his Fox Theatre debut. “I forgot how much fun this is.”

While Ross had not acted on stage since briefly filling in for a friend in 2012, he said he was convinced to come back because of the type of organization Enchanted Playhouse is. Ross worked with the community theater group to set up several plays that have been performed on the infield of Valley Strong Ballpark since 2020. He said he loves the organization’s focus on local children and promoting art and culture in the community.

“Everything kind of came together at the right moment at the right time,” Ross said.

Verissimo saw this play as a unique opportunity to spend more time with his son, Maddox, who is currently in fifth grade. After his son decided to audition for the play, he was encouraged by his wife and Enchanted to audition as well.

“Maddox had high expectations and I was just happy to be there,” the elder Verissimo said. “I came in as a complete novice and they have been very patient with me and they’ve been giving me a lot of great pointers. It’s been a blast!

Maddox said he was hoping they would be cast in their current roles as uncle and nephew. Both agreed it was a great opportunity to have some fun, yell at each other on stage, and just spend some quality time together through a shared experience.

“I love that I get to yell at him and push him on stage,” Maddox joked.

Books to Life

In addition to newcomers Verissimo and Ross, seven of the 17 characters in The Magician’s Nephew are new to Enchanted Playhouse, further evidence the organization is growing and regaining much of the popularity it lost in the confusing transition from the Main Street Theatre.  

“We’ve been out in the community, on social media and we want to be that groundbreaking experience for children and adults getting started in local theater,” Meier said.

Verissimo said his first experience with Enchanted Playhouse was when his son saw one of their school shows performed on weekday mornings as an field trip of local art for schools throughout Tulare County and even in Kings and Fresno Counties. The community theater only selects plays appropriate for school-age children focusing on classic fairytales and literature long part of school curriculum as part of its mission of “Bringing Books to Life.”

Meier said Enchanted presents four school shows of each production performed for up to 2,500 school children per show. In its 30-year history, Enchanted has performed more than 2,000 shows for more than 300,000 Valley youth.

“Once you see a school show, it hits you differently than anywhere else,” Meier said. “Seeing those kids watch something they have never seen before makes a huge difference in their lives.”

Enchanted Playhouse Theatre Co.’s next show will be “A Walk in the Woods” May 4-6 at the Fox.

Anyone interested in volunteering or donating, contact board president Shanna Meier at (559) 972-7027 or [email protected]. Donations may also be made through the organization’s Venmo and Square accounts on its website, https://enchantedplayhouse.org, or by mailing a check to Enchanted Playhouse Theatre Co., P.O Box 2566 Visalia, CA 93279.

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