Review: Watership Down (Lifeline Theatre)

  
  

A hopping fantasy adventure

 
  

Hazel-rah (Paul S. Holmquist) and his warren - Watership Down

   
Lifeline Theatre presents
  
  
Watership Down   
   
  
Adapted by John Hildreth
from book by Richard Adams
Directed by
Katie McLean Hainsworth
Original music by Mikhail Fiksel
at
Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N Glenwood (map)
through June 19  | 
tickets: $20-$35   |   more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

Having not read Richard Adamscritically acclaimed 1972 novel, “Watership Down”, I was a little concerned about getting lost with the mythology in Lifeline Theatre’s new adaptation, just judging by the length of the novel and how much would need to be condensed. While the world of rabbit gods and legends with names like Frith and El-ahrairah can be a little much to take in at first, John Hildreth’s stage adaptation doesn’t take long to captivate as you escape into this world. If you are the type who found no pleasure in any of the “Lord of the Rings” films, or just can’t get past the idea As told in legend, El-ahrairah (Paul S. Holmquist, right), Prince of Rabbits, and Rabscuttle (Scott T. Barsotti, left) enter the burrow of the Black Rabbit of Inlé on a quest to save their people; in Lifeline Theatre’s world premiere production of “Watership Down,” adapted by John Hildreth, directed by Katie McLean Hainsworth, based on the bestselling novel by Richard Adams. (Photo: Suzanne Plunkett)of humans playing rabbits (mostly without the pointy ears), then this fanciful tale may not be for you. However, if you can allow your imagination to escape in director Katie McLean Hainsworth’s smart, physical, and visually exciting (yet never over the top in spectacle) production, then you’re in for a fun adventure.

Hildreth’s adaptation, as with any good literary adaptation, strives to stay true to the core heart of the book while ensuring that the action on stage is constantly moving the story forward remaining compelling to watch. Hildreth begins Adams’ tale with Fiver (Scott T. Barsotti), a young rabbit who has clairvoyant abilities. He senses destruction coming to this particular rabbit warren (stemming from human intervention). He confides this information to his brother Hazel (Paul S. Holmquist) and they inform the Chief Rabbit of the warren (played with unpredictable eccentricity by Matt Kahler). After the Chief Rabbit ignores Fiver’s warnings, Hazel makes the decision to put together a band of fellow rabbits from the warren and venture out in search of a new home safe from danger. With the help of rabbits such as Blackberry (a perfectly cast Chris Daley), an extremely intelligent rabbit (in a modern context very aptly named), and Bigwig (a strong and complex performance by Christopher M. Walsh), who has the brawn of the group.

Throughout their journey they meet new friends, enemies and obstacles before they ultimately reach their destination of an ideal new home called Watership Down. It is the Lincoln Park condo of rabbit fields, luxury rabbit living with all the amenities. The only issue for their survival is that this troop is all male. They need female rabbits in their warren if they hope to thrive. With the assistance of a wounded gull they help heal, Kehaar (a bold scene-stealing performance by Jesse Manson), they discover female rabbits at a nearby farm in captivity. They manage to bring back one, Clover (a charming Chelsea Paice).

The other expedition proves to be much more treacherous as Bigwig goes undercover in what’s essentially a totalitarian rabbit warren where the females are enslaved and utilized strictly for breeding. Hazel and the gang lead a rescue mission to save the females and ultimately defend their new warren against General Woundwart (a deliciously evil Dave Skvarla) and his fascist army of scar marked rabbits. Hildreth also finds time to integrate scenes involving El-ahrairah (also played by Holmquist), the folk-hero prince of rabbits who characterizes all of the virtues rabbits aspire to. While intriguing, the jumps to these scenes occasionally take the air out of the action. All the while, the audience is free to connect the themes and motifs of the story to a multitude of religious and historical parallels including Christianity, WWII and the founding of Rome including the rape of the Sabine women (pretty thought-provoking for a tale about bunnies).

Scott T. Barsotti as Fiver (left) and Paul S. Holmquist as Hazel (right) in Lifeline Theatre's "Watership Down".  (Photo: Suzanne Plunkett)Hainsworth’s direction keeps things rather simple by choosing to avoid transforming the actors fully into rabbits, and instead focuses on the physicality. At times, she does have some difficulty grappling with stage pictures when the majority of the ensemble is on stage in this compact space. Also, the opening pacing drags slightly but that is coupled with the simple fact that there’s a lot of mythology being thrown at the audience in the initial scenes of Hildreth’s script.

In his double duty as movement designer, Holmquist helps create varied and fascinating choices in the physical performances of the ensemble. Richard Gilbert and Dave Gregory of R & D Choreography enhance the production greatly with their acrobatic and theatrical violence design. Matt Engle is a standout in his dynamic fights. Wenhai Ma’s set creates some excellent levels and provides a good playground for the actors to play scenes in various locations including into the audience. Joanna Iwanicka’s puppet and mask design echoes the recent Broadway Equus, but is entirely appropriate and meshes well with Hainworth’s minimal concept. Her video design provides some gorgeous, yet not too distracting abstract landscapes, however the glowing orb of the god Frith is perhaps a little too makeshift and underwhelming.

Watership Down is a faithful adaptation fit perfectly for the Lifeline Theatre aesthetic. It could certainly have gone in a more fanciful and spectacular direction (imagine a stage full of Easter bunny suits), but Hainsworth’s concept along with Aly Renee Amidei’s contemporary costumes (the farm rabbits’ preppy clothing is a gas) keeps the characters and themes of the story relatable and grounded for us human observers. This certainly requires your mind to fill in some gaps in the imagery, but for the willing audience member, the effort is well worth the journey in the end. With a dedicated and creative ensemble tackling this largely fascinating adaptation, I think it’s safe to say, “Lifeline has done it again.”

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Jesse Manson as Kehaar (left) and Christopher M. Walsh as Bigwig (right) in Lifeline Theatre's "Watership Down". (Photo: Suzanne Plunkett)

Lifeline Theatre presents Watership Down, running April 29—June 19, 2011 at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave. (free parking and shuttle). Regular performance times are Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 4 p.m. Tickets are $35 for regular single tickets on Saturdays and Sundays, $32 for regular single tickets on Thursdays and Fridays, $27 for seniors, $20 for students, and $20 rush tickets. Tickets may be purchased at the Lifeline Theatre Box Office, 773.761.4477, or by visiting www.lifelinetheatre.com.

  
  

Continue reading

REVIEW: Reefer Madness (The Brown Paper Box Co.)

 

Hilarious musical romp through the wide world of weed

 

Reefer Madness - Brown Paper Box Co 003

   
The Brown Paper Box Co. presents
   
Reefer Madness
 
Book and Lyrics by Kevin Murphy
Music by Dan Studney
Directed by M. William Panek
Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western (map)
through October 24  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

The 1938 propaganda film “Reefer Madness” sought to teach the ignorant American masses of the dangers of “marihuana”, including but not limited to grand theft auto, sexual deviance, and murder. Paranoid and misinformed to the extreme, the film’s absurd plot and hilarious depiction of drug users have made it a cult classic, and Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney’s musical spoof is a wonderfully over-the-top  expansion of the film’s best ideas, mainly the claims that marijuana turns people into sex-crazed baby-killing socialists.

Reefer Madness - Brown Paper Box Co_ 006Directed by M. William Panek, The Brown Paper Box Co.’s production of Reefer Madness is at its best during group numbers, when the cast fearlessly tackles the offensive subject matter with vocal gusto. During the smaller numbers, some of the actors struggle to adjust to the absence of the group, and the singing loses precision and clarity.

The musical revels in gratuitous sex and violence, and the exaggeration of these elements highlights the ridiculousness of the movie’s plot, the tragic tale of high school students Jimmy Harper (Tyler Davis) and Mary Lane (Anna Schutz). Under the false pretense of swing dance lessons, drug pusher Jack Stone (David Geinosky) invites Jimmy over to the Reefer Den, where his life will be changed forever.

When Jimmy takes a hit of marijuana for the first time, rather than experiencing lethargy and munchies, Jimmy life descends into a mess of unbridled orgies, Jesus hallucinations, and running over old men with Mary’s car. While Davis’ jonesing can get a little grating to watch at times, he and Schutz showcase impressive vocals, and the two actors have no problem transitioning from adorable sweetness to devilish insanity. Some of the high notes could have more power behind them, and there needs to be a better balance between the volume of the principals and the chorus behind them, but Jimmy and Mary’s tragic romance is a constant source of humor throughout the production.

Reefer Madness - Brown Paper Box Co 004 As the denizens of the Reefer Den, junkies Ralph (Michael Gardner), Sally (Jillian Kate Weingart), and Mae (Chelsea Paice) have some of the best moments in the show as stumble around the stage, humping and smoking whatever they can. Wiley is fantastically manic as Ralph, and is extra creepy as Sally’s baby in one disturbing interlude. Paice gets one of the best ballads of the show, and while she handles the lower register well, the big money notes are lacking in energy and support. Weingart has a similar problem, but she makes up for it with her powerful belting and fierce sexuality.

Reefer Madness is a musical that is not afraid to offend. Whether it is through explicit sexuality or graphic violence, the show pushes the boundaries of musical comedy, taking it to hilariously dark place. Brown Paper Box Co.’s production needs a little more polish to be truly memorable, but the actors tackle the material with dedication and courage. Despite the lows, this musical never comes down from its high.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

Reefer Madness - Brown Paper Box Co 002

Continue reading

REVIEW: Red Noses (Strawdog Theatre)

Laughing in the face nose of the Black Plague

 

Strawdog Theatre Red Noses Remount 2

   
Strawdog Theatre presents
  
RED NOSES
   
Written by Peter Barnes
Directed by Matt Hawkins
at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through August 15th |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Katy Walsh

Strawdog Theatre Red Noses Remount 1 ‘It’s easy to find someone to share your life with. What about someone to share your death?’  Serious contemplations about the fragility of life get a laugh with the addition of a clown prosthetic.  Strawdog Theatre presents the remount of its successful 2009 production RED NOSES.  14th Century Europe is being plagued with death.  The dying is reaching epidemic proportions.  The survivors are targets for flagellant crazed religious types and victim-hunting scavengers.  From this hopeless void, a joyful priest recruits individuals to fight death with humor.  He forms a traveling troupe of performers to ‘ripple and spread’ amusement across the grieving countryside.   Strawdog’s RED NOSES explores the humorous side of the Black Plague by adding a clown-car-filled cast, jamming it to eighties music and letting death urinate on the wall.

The show starts playfully with a game of toss.  Death arrives with a neon yellow ball. The game becomes deadly.  Victims spew out neon yellow barf.  Game over!  The dying has begun.   Death doesn’t keep anyone down for long.  Zombies rise, dance and sing “Only the Good Die Young.” 

Under the direction of Matt Hawkins, the twenty-three cast members are lively, moving from scene to scene and role to role.  They juggle balls, play instruments, and remove spittle as a tight working ensemble.   It’s all about finding the comedic moment and putting a red nose on it.  Shannon Hoag (Marguerite) is hilarious as the disappointed almost-raped nun.  She belts out a wonderful rendition of “I don’t want to lose your love tonight.”  Sarah Goeden (Bells) and Chelsea Paice (Tricycle Clown Messenger) without a word effectively amuse and communicate with ringing and expressive faces.  Michael E. Smith (Pope) delivers a humorous line and attitude with ‘I don’t have to be wise just decisive.’  It’s the small touches that change dire to funny.  Two amputees do a stub version of a high five.  A blind man calls out a color.  
Death gets his cloak caught in his suitcase.  Cause of death?  Talented cast injects shots of fatal humor.  

Strawdog Theatre Red Noses Remount 3 

‘If there is life after death, why do we have to die?’ Playwright Peter Barnes penned a tale about laughing in the face of death.  To exploit the absurd, he set it in a plague killing era and added clown noses.  The script could go “Patch Adams” cute as one man’s quest to bring joy to the infirmed.  Strawdog wisely chooses a “Monty Python” approach with comedy influenced by pushing the funny aspect of sensitive content.  Barnes’ play has a propensity to go long and tedious with some productions exceeding a three hour running time.  Even with Mike Przygoda (Music Director) orchestrating the 80’s flashback with a high-energy, live soundtrack, the second act gets a little tiresome with death-defying religious undercurrents. Still, “You gotta have faith!” Strawdog’s RED NOSES is plagued with comedy for whatever ails you! 

 

   
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Strawdog Theatre Red Noses Remount 4

Running Time:  Two hours and twenty minutes includes a fifteen minute intermission

  
   

Continue reading