REVIEW: Blue Shadow (Lifeline Theatre)

A joyous “Blue Shadow”

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Lifeline Theatre presents:

Blue Shadow

by Nambi E. Kelley, with Xavier Kelley
music and lyrics by
Joe Plummer
directed by Ilesa Duncan
at
Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood (map)
through May 2nd (more info)

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

There are so many tests in life. As children, some of the first we have occur on the play lot and then later in school, ranging from how to make friends to how to make it off of the playground without being teased. Back in the day, there weren’t many guides for this kind of stuff; if a child was not popular then the dice often fell the same way your entire life. These days, we are encouraged to celebrate our differences and somehow find common ground. It was from this premise that I took my niece Lexie and my nephew David to see The Blue Shadow at the Lifeline Theatre.

I grew up on shows like “Captain Kangaroo” and “Garfield Goose”. Questions of national origin were never addressed (although I suspected something subversive about Mr. Green Jeans). By the time “Sesame Street” and “Zoom” came along, I was well into junior high and getting plenty of doses of cold reality thanks to the world seemingly getting smaller via the evening news.

BlueShadow2The Blue Shadow, by playwright Nambi E. Kelley, is lovingly adapted for the stage from a book written with her nephew Xavier Kelley. When walking up the to theatre, there was a gaggle of excited kids racing us to the door. I got the book and CD for my young guests (which I recommend as a fine way to continue the positive energy of the production after going home). I introduced Lexie and David to Ms. Kelley and her nephew Xavier, who both autographed the book. It was a good example to set for the children – something to aspire to in perhaps writing their stories.

When we were ushered to our seats, it wasn’t long before members of the cast, in character, filtered through the audience. Dawn Pryor  sat down in the aisle next to my nephew and introduced herself as her character Zuri. Her exuberant smile and bouncing braids immediately enthralled David. Ms. Pryor engaged him in a conversation and I admit to being charmed as well. When Miguel Nunez introduced himself as Ernesto, I scoffed at his claim of being ten years old. Mr. Nunez retorted with a very convincing “uh-huh I’m ten!” It was a clever means of involving the young audience and then focusing them on the stage.

Ben Chang plays the role of Wei – a cool kid wearing headphones who launches into an audience participation rap. Wei is joined onstage by Africa (Pryor), Meso-America (Nunez), and the European Roksana (Mallory Nees). A teacher is heard in a booming voice-over, telling the children to take their seats and welcome the new student Shadow (Susaan Jamshidi). Jamshidi plays Shadow with perfectly awkward rebellion and tentative shyness at the same time. Bursting onstage wearing a heavy metal tee shirt and dark glasses, the other schoolkids immediately make negative presumptions about her. But the students warm up to her as Shadow impresses them with her Wikipedia knowledge. As the children introduce themselves, they share their origins on a giant inflatable globe. Shadow does not know how to explain her ancestry so easily as the other kids and becomes quite blue. The song “Shadow’s Blues” is funny and forlorn as the audience is reminded that one does not have to get their heart stomped on to have the blues – the blues can come from a yearning to recognized and to belong.  (The music and lyrics by Joe Plummer are a welcome respite from the bleating bubblegum drivel usually peddled to children.)

What follows is a colorful array of tales from the human diaspora. The cast brought my Rand McNally childhood memories to life, traversing the globe with folktales and songs familiar yet new. I admit to a love of the story of Baba Yaga featuring Vasilisa (Nees), the put-upon stepchild in the Russian version of the Cinderella story sans Prince Charming. The entire cast is involved in each tale but this was a wonder of identity switching and snappy dialogue with a great gross-out depiction of Baba Yaga’s meal request. I bow to the props department on getting an ‘ewww!’ from everyone.

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Each story is told to discover Shadow’s origins. After hearing tales from around the globe, she recalls a tale from her childhood of how moccasins were fashioned from buffalo skins. It is a story of mud and bunions with a great cameo by a buffalo that will delight all age groups.

The performances are full of such childlike exuberance that one forgets that these are adults on the stage performing as children. The cast embodies a frenetic energy that sincerely enjoys the material.  The musical performances are broadly drawn; designed to remain in a child’s mind well beyond the production’s close. The use of shadow puppets and great papier mache masks lends a wonderful live cartoon vibe that draws one further into each folktale; inspiring flights of imagination.

At the play’s conclusion, all sections of the globe are filled in and everyone has a story of discovery. The writing inspired curiosity for learning about other cultures for my niece and nephew. There is a trip to the Field Museum in my near future as well as a tour through the family tree and photo albums.

Ms. Kelley, the playwright, has an impressive theatre resume here in Chicago as well as on both coasts. I have fond memories of her performances and am very excited to see her coming accomplishments on the writing side. I’m also looking forward to following the blossoming talents of Kelly’s nephew, Xavier, who adapted “The Muddy Foot” – the pivotal story in finding Shadow’s cultural identity. Xavier is all of ten years old and quite an impressive young man.

Director Ilesa Duncan has staged a flowing and fast paced production with The Blue Shadow. Never once does the direction condescend to the young audience, which ranges from four years old and up. I am always amazed at the stagecraft of the productions at Lifeline Theatre. This is but one of the reasons that Chicago is America’s theatre leader.

 

Rating: ★★★

“The Blue Shadow” run Saturdays at 1:00pm and Sundays at 11:00am and 1:00pm through May 2, 2010. There are no performances on Easter Sunday, April 4th, 2010.

Ticket information is available at 773-761-4477 or https://www.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/1371 As always more information is available at www.lifelinetheatre.com

Please note that the cast is available after the performances to sign autographs and take pictures. Also the book and CD are available at the box office.

 

 

Video courtesy of Lifeline Video Library

REVIEW: The Gimmick (Pegasus Players)

Rich script overrides lackluster adaptation

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Pegasus Players presents:

The Gimmick

 

by Dael Orlandersmith
directed by Ilesa Duncan
performed at Truman College, 1145 West Wilson Ave.

through March 28th  (more info, tickets)
reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

Chicago Dramatists’ alum Dael Orlandersmith’s The Gimmick is a one-woman show originally performed by the playwright herself in 1999. It is a superbly-written poem/monologue that tells the story of ten-year-old Alexis, as she and her best friend Jimmy grow up together in 1970’s Harlem. The children are surrounded by addiction, LaNisa%20Frederick%20&%20Brandon%20Thompson_Webprostitution and violence both from their parents and their peers, and find solace both in the arts and in each other.

Although it was originally written as a solo piece, Pegasus Players has unnecessarily brought on Caren Blackmore and Brandon Thompson to play supportive roles. The result is a collection of cold, weird, disconnected scenes that come off more like high school skits than scenes in a play, tied together by Alexis’ (LaNisa Frederick) speeches. The work put in by the actors is passable, but the production is passionless: from the snooze-fest of a set (made up of a scrim and a couple of window units) to the beyond lame staging.

Frederick does her best, working against banal direction and bizarre costuming (she is dressed in a huge purple, flowy, over-shirt thingy that completely monopolizes her body). She’s able to transform her role from being cute and funny to dark, gross places when needed. Her monologues are by far the most engaging parts of the show. Brandon Thompson, who ages about ten years as during the play as Jimmy, does a great job of playing a ten year old in a respectful, believable and sweet way.

LaNisa%20Frederick%20-%20Cab_Web When improv actors are learning their craft, they are taught never to bring real props or costumes onto the stage, because it interferes with the audience’s suspension of disbelief. The theory is that if everything is pantomimed, then anything can be possible. As soon as a real object enters the scene, it becomes harder to imagine things that aren’t really there. I wish someone had told director Ilesa Duncan thies before she directed this play. The idea is creativity in minimalism. Just because a play doesn’t call for fireworks is no reason to slack off when trying to fill the space.

This being said, don’t write off this play entirely. The writing is so robust that you’ll still have a good time. Pegasus Players’ mission to bring theater to those with limited access. which is a very worthy cause. But almost everything about this production, from the props to the costumes, to the set is more half-hearted than impressionistic.

 

Rating: ★★

 

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Free and metered street parking is available in surrounding neighborhoods.  Valet parking is available at Magnolia Cafe at 1224 West Wilson for $8.00.

All photos by Michael Brosilow

Chicago theater happenings – Pegasus Players, Mary Poppins, Emerald City, and Porchlight Theatre

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»» Broadway in Chicago’s upcoming musical, Mary Poppins, has extended their run for 2 more weeks, which now will run through July 12th.  Contact Broadway in Chicago for info and tickets.
 

 

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»» Emerald City Theatre will be offering a St. Patrick’s Day special for Saturday, March 14 and Sunday March 15 – wear green to performances on these dates and receive a free special gift from the Wizard!  More info.
    
  e1235510044Porchlight Music Theatre will be holding their 3rd Annual Jazz Brunch at the Drake Hotel on Sunday, March 29th.  Porchlight is Chicago’s music theatre leader, and this annual event is an important part of raising funds to continue their award-winning productions. 
For more info, send e-mail to porchlighttheatre@yahoo.com, call at 773-325-9884, or visit their website.
 

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»» Don’t miss out on Pegasus Players newest production, the world premier of “The Shape of the Girl” by Joan MacLeod.  Starring Alice Wedoff, this one-woman show deals with the code of silence and tacit complicity surrounding the Reena Vick murder in Canada in 1997.  Directed by Ilesa Duncan, The Shape of the Girl , running March 2nd through April 12th, is the perfect production to help celebrate the 30th-anniversary (!!) of Pegasus Players, a true Chicago theatrical treasure.

 

xx