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.

  
  

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REVIEW: Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure

Sherlock Holmes Chicago Idle Muse review

The Game’s Afoot

 

Sherlock Holmes - Idle Muse 1

   
Idle Muse Theatre presents
   
Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure
  
By Arthur Conan Doyle and William Guilette
Adapted by
Steven Dietz
Directed by Evan Jackson
at
the side project, 1439 W. Jarvis (map)
through August 22  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Idle Muse Theatre’s production of Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure makes it clear that it is different. They do their best to avoid falling back on any typical depictions of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional genius. Don’t expect huge smoking pipes and capes or any neurotic antics a la Robert Downey, Jr. Director Evan Jackson Sherlock Holmes - Idle Muse 2 succeeds in coming up with his own spin on the Victorian-era play by Doyle and actor William Guilette, cleverly adapted by Steven Dietz. Luke Hamilton’s dapper Sherlock injects cocaine (a trait from the novels often overlooked in adaptations) and the space basks in steampunk nostalgia. Jackson and his team make bold choices, of which a fair amount fail, but they are able to keep the storm of suspense gathering on the tiny side project stage.

The ambitious play dramatizes Holmes’ last adventure, one where he faces his mortality at every twist and turn. It starts with Dr. Watson (Nathan Pease) eulogizing about his comrade. Then we’re thrown into the thick of the final case. The King of Bohemia (Brian Bengston) wants the duo to retrieve a salacious photo of him and Irene Adler (Elizabeth MacDonald). This seemingly inane investigation heats up when another long-time Doyle character, Professor Moriarty (Nathan Thompson), is linked to the caper. By then, as the saying goes, the game is afoot.

Dietz’s adaptation captures Doyle’s snappy sense of wit and intelligence. Holmes and Watson wax philosophical and, occasionally, poetical. There’s an authenticity that runs through the piece; it’s neither over-contemporized nor over-researched. The major flaw with the play is that it’s too neat. Dietz takes a Hollywood approach to the plot, bringing together all the major players of the series for one last hoorah. Moriarty and Holmes are simply painted as the villain and hero of this story, a stale aspect of this otherwise deftly-written show.

Sherlock Holmes - Idle Muse 5 Sherlock Holmes - Idle Muse 4

Sans goofy hat, Hamilton is remarkably charming as Holmes. With a script that meditates on death as much as this one, you need an actor who can humanize a character like Holmes. Hamilton finds all of it, layering on anxiety, love, and fear into Sherlock’s calculating psyche. He and Pease have fine chemistry, brotherly yet sometimes catty. The mousy Pease takes awhile to warm up to his long addresses to the audience, but he grabs control by the second act. MacDonald plays well against the two men. Her Irene Adler can be as cold as Holmes, a great choice for the character. The weak spot of the cast is Thompson, who ruins the quick pace with his pause-prone take on Moriarty. With such an atypical take on Sherlock, it’s a shame Moriarty is portrayed so two-dimensional. Thompson comes off as stock “slimy evil genius,” a choice that gets boring pretty quickly.

Moriarty’s reptilian essence is one of several missteps Jackson makes. For example, the supporting cast lacks the clarity of Hamilton and Pease. And the ending is marred by a deflating bout of stage combat, one that would have been better left to the imagination than illustrated.

Idle Muse definitely wins some, too. Dennis Mae’s set, which includes a maze of copper piping, is wonderful and flexible to all sorts of environments. Place is noted by beautiful etchings hung from the grid. And the production sits firmly with Idle Muse’s ‘poor theatre’ mission statement. The industrial world presented here feels both modern and old, a statement that could describe most of the production. However, it’s the commitment to honesty that really drives this show forward. While the mystery is kind of easy, we still want to follow Holmes along. Like Doyle’s books, it’s not really about the case, but the detective.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
    
   

Sherlock Holmes - Idle Muse 3

       
       

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Review: “Shotgun Shakespeare: What the Weird Sisters Saw”

 Three sisters in search of a narrative

MacB and MacD and Banquo

Idle Muse Theatre presents:

Shotgun Shakespeare: What the Weird Sisters Saw
by Evan Jackson and Tristan Brandon
directed by Evan Jackson

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Three SistersThe witches in Idle Muse Theatre’s Shotgun Shakespeare: What the Weird Sisters Saw are certainly women on the verge. But on the verge of what, that is the question. Director Evan Jackson and co-writer Tristan Brandon have created a “prequel” to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, wherein the witches are the benign protagonists of the story. They perceive and pursue the events of the original play through visions and forces that displace the original narrative through space and time. The question is do they have any agency of their own or, at least, any agency that is clear and distinguishable to the audience?

Jackson and Brandon heavily depend upon the audience’s familiarity with the original play. They use the lines of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, only re-ordered as dialogue between the witches and other characters. I must say that, before this, I did not realize how much the original drama depended on the rhythm of Shakespeare’s language—and not simply in the pentameter of each line for each actor, as I had been trained, but also from character to character and scene to scene. All that is disjointed here–and it could be disjointed to a purpose, if such a purpose could be discerned by the audience.

MacB and Lady Let it be said that it takes audacity to put on a production like this; creators and cast can celebrate the risks that they are daring to take with a classic. Involving the witches as visionary onlookers and unwitting interlopers in the events of “the Scottish play” turns the tale on its head, compounds the evil that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are willing to engage in, and plunges the narrative into unremitting darkness. It breaks down the barriers of traditional Western storytelling–indeed, Western identity itself. It suggests that there exists no distinction between forces that influence us and the forces that we are in influencing others.

Jackson and Evans have stumbled inadvertently into Surrealism—the problem being that the operative word here is “inadvertently.” The witches are still following a timeline of their own. They do seem to make choices regarding how they will react to the visions they have seen. Sadly, too many times, the audience can lose the thread of the motivations for their actions or misperceive altogether that certain choices are being made when they are not. That’s not a good conundrum to throw an audience into. Tensions that the actors strive to build and release with a purpose, in the course of the production, are lost. The entire effect of the production comes close to disintegrating.

MacD It must be said that even a Surrealist rendering of this work still requires the training to speak Shakespeare’s words. Macbeth (Robert Negron) directs his final “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech to Morgan, the First Witch (Elizabeth MacDougald) with black futility and poignancy. Macduff (Bradley Woodward) effectively conveys the anguish at the loss of his family—no small achievement, when we have not seen it occur at this point in this production. But the dagger scene and Lady Macbeth’s (Stacy Sublette) sleepwalking scene still haven’t the consistency and power they would need even in the original. Other moments are truly inspired, such as the ritual the witches engage in prior to the end of act 1–you can feel the energy building in the playhouse.

Audiences should prepare for a challenging, incomplete, and uneven work. Can an argument be made here for potential—that is, the hope and promise of this play lies in what it could potentially be? To improve on it, perhaps the creators would have to resolve the question of what effect we can have, if any, against the darkness that surrounds us. Truly a question for our time, whether one does Macbeth in more traditional ways or not.

Rating: «½

 

Second Witch

Second Witch and Murderer