A Woman Visits the Past to Prevent a Prince’s Murder in “Autumn Rewind”; Theatre Intime Presents a Poignant Fantasy Staged by Student Playwright
“AUTUMN REWIND”: Theatre Intime has staged “Autumn Rewind.” Written and directed by Le’Naya Wilkerson ’25, the play was presented February 24-March 5 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Above: Saige (Lara Danisman, center) travels back in time to stop the assassination of Prince Rowan (Zach Lee, left). But this mission leads to encounters with dangerous people at court, including Rowan’s estranged cousin, Ernest (Orion Lopez-Ramirez, right). (Photo by Kate Stewart)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
In Autumn Rewind the protagonist, Saige, is given a chance to go back in time and prevent the assassination of her childhood friend and first love, Prince Rowan. This offer is Faustian, because it requires Saige to make an unthinkable moral decision.
Theatre Intime has presented (February 24-March 5) Autumn Rewind. The poignant fantasy was written and directed by Princeton University student Le’Naya Wilkerson. According to a program note, Wilkerson began writing the play in December 2021 — when she was “going through a difficult time” and “turned to writing, as I often do.”
This time frame probably is significant. The central themes of the play are loss, displacement, and a perception that all is not as it is supposed to be. During and after the pandemic, these things have been all too palpable.
“What does it mean to love?” Wilkerson asks rhetorically. “And how does grief and loss lead us on a path of self-discovery?”
At the beginning of the play Saige (portrayed by Lara Danisman) gazes at a single white lily that has been placed at the center of the stage; this represents Prince Rowan’s grave. She is approached by a medium, Selene (Xiani Fan), who offers her the opportunity to prevent Rowan’s murder.
Selene suggests that this action will save the kingdom as much as it does Saige’s first love. But there is a catch: Saige must choose another character to die in Rowan’s place. In grief and haste, Saige accepts the bargain — though later she agonizes over the choice of who will die instead of Rowan.
What makes the play’s resolution effective is that Saige’s eventual decision is both unthinkable and, in retrospect, beautifully inevitable. This is aided by Danisman’s contemplative performance. She clearly understands Saige’s dilemma, and she consistently conveys the character’s motivations without revealing too much.
The play leans on some familiar story beats and character archetypes. However, Wilkerson deftly recombines these recognizable elements, with the purpose of telling a story — and reflecting on its themes — from a clear viewpoint. Autumn Rewind is a (contemplative, at times somber) fairy tale for the 2020s.
One of the most recognizable archetypes is the scheming, corrupt official. Here, that role is filled by a character later revealed to be Saige’s father: the manipulative Prime Minister (whom Teddy Feig plays as entertainingly effete).
Lighting Designer Kat McLaughlin (assisted by Michelle Liu) assigns the Prime Minister the leitmotif of being lit in red — first when Selene shows Saige a projection of the future, and then when the event actually happens. Red might be a somewhat obvious color choice for a villain, but the device nevertheless is an effective example of using a production element to define a character.
Another archetype is the banished, supposedly dangerous family member. Ernest (Orion Lopez-Ramirez) is Rowan’s estranged cousin, and is being groomed by the Prime Minister as a rival for the throne. The brooding Rowan could not be more different from his sidekick, the affably placid, witty Ivan (Brendan Kehoe).
Costume Designer Clara Bloom underlines this contrast by dressing Ernest in black, and Ivan in white and tan; the latter color scheme is echoed by Saige’s outfit. (It is worth remembering that the lily is white.) Rowan — an essentially well-intentioned man who loves Saige, but lets mounting court intrigue darken his personality — wears a white shirt and black pants, making him something of a mix between Saige and Ernest.
Saige also encounters Rowan’s shrewd mother, Queen Helena (aptly infused with prissiness by Antea Garo); and Quinn (Britton Masback), an initially standoffish general who is loyal to Rowan, but develops a close friendship with Saige — and rebukes the prince for his increasingly unkind treatment of her.
The theme of displacement is explored when Saige visits the past; she finds that certain events happen differently from the way she remembers them. Characters arrive earlier than she thinks they should; and the lily conspicuously is moved closer to one side of the stage. Selene explains that it is inevitable that things would seem different, because Saige has gained perspectives that she did not have when living through the events the first time around.
Saige even finds herself displaced. Despite the love she has shared with Rowan (Zach Lee), she finds that the prince starts to push her away once they are betrothed, and the pressures of preparing to ascend to the throne mount. This is exacerbated when Princess Aspen (infused with charm by Soraya Patterson) is introduced as another possible bride for Rowan.
Where Wilkerson particularly succeeds as a director is in working with her cast and production team to make the play’s world feel vivid and inhabited. Sound Designers Daniel Viorica and Rilla McKeegan fill the outdoor scenes with birdsong; and dignified string music accompanies important court events.
Some of Wilkerson’s most effective staging is for a gala that ends the first act. This well-blocked scene’s focus is on Saige’s interference with an attempt to kill Rowan. But we never lose sight of the fact that the other characters are in the room.
Given that this is a University
production, the actors’ performances inevitably vary in quality. Vocal projection often is a bit of an issue, and that is true here. Certain lines are less audible than others (at least for this writer). Nevertheless, the performers clearly are making the most of their roles, and they make scenes such as the gala fun to watch.
This first attempt on Rowan’s life leads to an often-used plot element: the poisoning — and surreptitious, last-minute switching — of drinks. Everly (Heather Jung), the mild-mannered servant who pours the drinks, is conveniently oblivious to all of this, to an extent that stretches credibility. Using body language, the actors make it clear that multiple conversations are happening, and it is interesting to observe the characters’ reactions to each other.
Set Designer Eslem Saka furnishes the stage with formidable, ancient-looking columns, evocative of the Romans. In a play that explores the passage and reversal of time, the pillars seem to be steadfast, never-changing — even if age appears to be corroding them. Additionally, they are a humanity-imposed element that intrudes on nature, echoing the conflict between the world-weary court intrigue, and the innocent, genuine friendship between Rowan and the nature-loving Saige — a friendship that one wishes was presented more fully, perhaps via flashbacks.
The pillars probably also can be said to represent tradition, and correspondingly, patriarchal institutions. Despite the uneasy interactions between the Prime Minister and Queen Helena, both have accepted court-imposed, institutional traditions — and both Rowan and Ernest are groomed to continue them. Saige, the Prime Minister’s daughter, increasingly finds herself excluded by the courtiers and the institutional system they represent. Aspen, perhaps, is more able to mold herself to them.
Ultimately, Saige saves Rowan by moving in front of him, and taking a fatal stab wound that her father means for him. We realize that the Faustian bargain probably has less to do with supernatural elements than with basic circumstance; Saige physically takes Rowan’s place.
The opening scene is reversed when most of the characters stand at her grave, and pay tribute to her. (Ivan offers a bit of comic relief by comparing her to his “Aunt Susie.”) In a poetic epilogue, Rowan reads Saige’s final letter to him, as her spirit bids him farewell.
Autumn Rewind is an engaging inaugural effort by Wilkerson. (Hopefully) assuming that she continues to make theater, this play makes one excited to fast-forward and see what she creates next.
For information about Theatre Intime’s upcoming productions call (609) 258-5155 or visit theatreintime.org.