Review: No More Dead Dogs (Griffin Theatre)

  
  

Griffin Theatre focuses on ‘Dead Dog’ fun

  
   

Alex Kyger, Colton Dillion, Cameron Harms, Jeff Duhigg and Ryan Lempka in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"

  
Griffin Theatre presents
  
  
No More Dead Dogs
   
Based on novel by Gordon Korman
Adapted by William Massolia
Directed by Dorothy Milne
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through June 19  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Just what is it about children’s literature? On the one hand, classics in the genre can zap heartstrings and endear us to them forever. On the other hand, they, too, fall back on tired formulas that make us wonder what we ever saw in them. Heaven help the public school teacher trying to turn kids onto literature using “age appropriate” work from the 1950s. Wallace Wallace (Ryan Lempka) is just the kind of kid who won’t accept that kind of fodder without blunt and unforgiving commentary. Griffin Theatre’s latest production at Theatre Wit, No More Dead Dogs, follows Wallace’s keen observation that many books for young people, such as “Old Yeller” and “Where the Red Fern Grows”, often have dogs die in them in order to foster some tear-jerking Ellie Reed and Ryan Lempka in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"realization about life for the young reader. (Don’t get us started about Bambi.)

But dead dogs and orphaned deer aside, Griffin’s show, under the easy, swift and agile direction of Dorothy Milne, is a joyous romp for both cast and audience. Co-Artistic Director William Massolia has adapted Gordon Korman’s best-selling comic novel for the stage and his light handling of the ‘tween material usually carries off without a hitch. Wallace, having been lied to so often by his Dad (Jeff Duhigg), simply cannot bring himself to lie about anything, ever—including how much he thinks the book he’s assigned to report, “Old Shep, My Pal”, stinks. Too bad his English teacher, Mr. Fogelman (Jeremy Fisher), can’t accept that his favorite children’s classic may be past its prime. He perpetually puts Wallace in detention until he can write a book report that meets with his approval. What could have been Wallace’s irresistible force running into Fogelman’s immovable object instead morphs into school jock meets the drama club, since Fogelman has adapted “Old Shep, My Pal” for their next production.

By no means is No More Dead Dogs a John Hughes drama. Crafted for younger audiences, the comedy kindly skirts the rancor between high school cliques. Indeed, sub-cultural clashes become virtually negligible once Wallace starts updating Fogelman’s adaptation to something his classmates can relate to. This includes incorporating Vito’s (Joey deBettencourt) garage band, The Dead Mangoes, into the production, much to Fogelman’s chagrin. Lempka strongly shows he knows the importance of being earnest in his humorously straightforward interpretation of Wallace. Fisher, however, almost steals the show, as Fogelman journeys from escalating frustration over his play being usurped, to hip cat on a sax once the band tells him he can join.

          
 Cameron Harms, Jeff Duhigg and Ryan Lempka in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs" Ellie Reed and Joey Eovaldi in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"

Ellie Reed and Cameron Harms in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs". (background: The Mangos)

Indeed, much as the play spoofs stale children’s lit, the show looks strangely reminiscent of zany, overtly physical 50s comedy, where every character pretty much stays in type and the show winds up even more crazy from there. Milne’s direction never overplays its hand but always builds the action to its appropriately goofy outcomes. Wallace is solidly flanked by his football buddies and the nerdier drama club, with Joey Eovaldi adding coy and energetic mischief in his role as the younger Dylan. Would that the parts of Rachel (Elllie Reed) and Trudi (Samantha Dubina) could have gone beyond girls-with-crushes-on-the-lead cliches—but at least Reed and Dubin handle their characters sportingly and generously. In fact, one would be hard put to find a more good-natured production, focused solely on dealing out firm and lively fun for the young, than this.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Joey deBettencourt, Erin O'Shea, Morgan Maher and Jeremy Fisher as The Mangos in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"

Griffin Theatre’s No More Dead Dogs continues at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, through June 19th, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $25-$30, and can be purchased by phone (773-975-8150) or online.  More info at www.griffintheatre.com.

  
  

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REVIEW: And a Child Shall Lead (Adventure Stage)

   
  

Against Genocide, Art Endures

 

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Adventure Stage presents
   
And a Child Shall Lead
   
Written by Michael Slade
Directed by
Tom Arvetis
at Vittum Theater, 1012 N. Noble (map)
through December 9  |  tickets: $12-$17  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Feeling a little depressed, now that “hope and change” from the 2008 election has thoroughly lost its gloss? Head on over to Adventure Stage Theatre’s production, And a Child Shall Lead. Take a good look at young people fighting insurmountable odds to sustain creativity and to speak truth to power.

And a Child Shall Lead - Adventure Stage Chicago 011Under the Nazis, from 1941 to 1945, the 18th-century fortress of Terezin, located in present day Czech Republic, was a nightmare place where youthful promise was meant to die. It was a transit camp where deported Jews either succumbed to starvation and disease or were shipped out to Auschwtiz, Majdanek and Treblinka. But Terezin was also a place where the Gestapo deported Jewish artists. Such a strong repository of cultured European Jewry yielded over 6000 hidden works of art created by Terezin’s children—hidden because any evidence of cultural creation or education at Terezin was punishable by death.

Michael Slade’s drama focuses solely on the child artists of Terezin. They draw, write poetry, stage puppet shows, play music and run their own newspaper. While mostly young adults take on child roles for the production, no adult character disturbs the world of this play. And a Child Shall Lead is meant for younger audiences but adults can also benefit from getting back to basics. Just an hour into the play makes one realize the perennial nature of their struggle–simply to be heard, to have the truth told, no matter how terrible, and to create a vision of a better future worth surviving for. Unlike us, the child artists of Terezin carry out their mission under far deadlier and more dehumanizing circumstances.

Heavy stuff for children’s theater; yet Director Tom Arvetis preserves the youthful drive and perspective of his cast through an energetic and rigorous pace of playing games: hide and seek, hiding from Nazi guards, hiding their artwork and newspaper articles in their own secret places, stealing paper from trash bins (because paper has been forbidden them) and carrying on lessons while a child stands lookout. Even while portraying hunger, illness, and an ever-present terror of arbitrary execution, Arvetis’ cast brings excitement, suspense, and playfulness to their characters’ fight for survival, beauty and meaning. Play and preserving play in the midst of horror is this production’s most successful feature. Well-balanced scenic (Jessica Kuehnau), sound (Miles Polaski) and lighting design (Brandon Wardell) perfectly supplement and supports the action.

 

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Getting the truth out to others about the atrocities they endure proves far more overwhelming for Terezin’s children. The Third Reich showcases the city as the “Fuhrer’s gift to the Jews,” a place where they can be safe from the war. But, in reality, Terezin functions as a distraction from The Final Solution. The Gestapo produces a propaganda film about the city, complete with staged scenes of healthy and contented Jewish residents engaged in crafts. As the Red Cross visits Terezin, the children attempt to get their newspaper Vedem to the inspectors, but fail. All the Red Cross perceives is whitewashed Nazi reality.

What endures from Terezin is the artwork and the bits of their newspaper. Death comes for nearly every character in the play–certainly, 15,000 children died in the actual ghetto. The production displays artwork copied from the artwork produced by the children of Terezin. Every poem recited is poetry that survived this awful place. While Slade’s play could benefit from a small amount of editing, no one can deny the emotional impact of his clear, simple and forthright work. It touches the primal core in us all and Michael Slade places our need for human dignity at the very center of childlike self-expression.

  
   
Rating: ★★★½
      
   

Recommended for ages 11 and up (6th thru 8th grades).

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