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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REVIEW: Street Scene (National Pastime Theater)

How not to revive a play

 

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National Pastime Theater presents
 
Street Scene
 
Written by Elmer Rice
Directed by Laurence Bryan and Keely Haddad-Null
At
National Pastime Theater, 4139 N. Broadway (map)
thru April 25th (more info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Elmer Rice‘s 1929 Pulitzer Prize winning Street Scene has over fifty characters and a heavy handed script that critiques an urban social structure that doesn’t exist anymore. Why did storefront theater National Pastime revive this show? Dated scripts have a certain appeal in revealing how contemporary society has changed or remained stagnant, and evolved acting techniques can often bring new life to a dusty play. Unfortunately, those only apply if the production is good, and National Pastime’s is not. 

Directors Laurence Bryan and Keely Haddad-Null fail to transform their assortment of actors into a cohesive ensemble, and much of this can be attributed to a lack of definition concerning the world of the play. Rice’s realist dialogue and characters clash with out-of-tune musical interludes and out of sync movement sequences, drawing attention away from the script and onto the weak choices of the creative team. Why have actors play instruments with a track if they can’t stay on tempo? Or have three actors engaging in expressive hand choreography in a corner of the stage in the midst of legitimate dramatic conflict? Some of the decisions are truly baffling, especially an unintentionally hilarious sound cue of a woman giving birth that falls somewhere between an infant throwing a tantrum and Linda Blair being exorcised. These all could be excused if the acting were above par, yet somewhere in the directors’ conceptualization of the script they forgot about the 23 performers on stage.

The plot of Street Scene concerns the hardships endured by the residents of a tenement in New York City, a group of people ranging from fresh immigrants to those having lived in the city their entire lives. The biggest challenge for the actors is the dialects, and their accuracy varies greatly, with most falling on the low end. The New York accents aren’t consistent, creating confusion about where exactly this stoop is located, and there are times when mother-daughter duo Rose (Melinda Ryba) and Mrs. Maurrant (Rebekka James) drop the dialect completely, making it even more distracting when it mysteriously reappears. The immigrant characters don’t fair any better. Musician Lippo (Michael Solomon) sounds more like Cheech Marin than an Italian, and his wife Mrs. Fiorentino (Kiley Moore) struggles to sound anything but American. Mrs. Olsen’s (Alexandra Shepherd) accent sounds like she can be anywhere from Ireland to eastern Europe.

The dialects are such an obstacle that it is difficult to connect with what the characters are actually saying, and plot points get lost in the muddled language along with any emotional resonance. The actors with the best vocals are the most intriquing, particularly Kaplan (Fred A. Wellisch) and his daughter Shirly (Shannon Hollander), who not only have flawless dialects, but also a clearly defined relationship. Their two windows of the tenement’s nine feature the most dynamic storytelling of the entire show, and watching the weary Shirly keep her rambunctious father in check provides actual entertainment value. Even apart these two actors shine, with Wellisch filling the “elderly revolutionary” role (see Awake and Sing’s Jacob) without becoming too tedious, and Hollander creating the show’s most genuine emotional moment, a melancholy goodbye with the tragic Rose.

Certain members of the supporting cast also provide nice but fleeting moments, like the ultra-prejudiced black neighbor Mrs. Jones (Sandra Watson) who is completely unaware of her son Vincent’s (Geoffrey Davis-El) tendency to rape, although the actual assault is some of the worst fight choreography I’ve ever seen. Prostitute Mae’s (Kelsey Hopper) squeaky sensuality brightens her scenes and impoverished mother Hildebrand (Rachel Griesinger) brings some tension to the piece with her chilly demeanor. Otherwise, the acting is stiff and disconnected across the board. Many actors look uncomfortable on stage, particularly when the goofy choreography begins, and line delivery becomes so monotone and dull as the play stretches into hours that it is a chore to watch.

A second intermission is the final nail in the show’s coffin, killing any momentum the lagging production had gathered. Expecting an audience member to wait another ten minutes for the end of a mediocre production is disrespectful, especially when the third act is twenty minutes long.

 
Rating: ★½
 

Street Scene previews March 19 & 20 and opens on March 26 at 8pm. The performances run Thursdays, Fridays Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm to April 25. Tickets are $25. Date night stimulus Thursdays two for one.

        

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