Chicago Theater Reviews: THE SILENT LANGUAGE (TUTA Theatre Chicago) & THE ELEPHANT AND THE WHALE (Chicago Children’s Theatre)

by Tony Frankel on May 9, 2013

in Theater-Chicago

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CATCHING WISE TO THE OLD RAZZLE DAZZLE

Tony Frankel's Chicago review of TUTA Theatre's "The Silent Language."A fascinating phenomenon is occurring in the theater, one which was elucidated by many shows that I saw in Chicago over the past couple of weeks. As the art of playwriting (to wit: storytelling) becomes deconstructed, muddled, and (occasionally) wholly impenetrable, the stagecraft used to tell these tales is more magical, imaginative, and wondrous than ever. Nearly half of the 32 shows I saw fell under this category, including Redmoon’s The Elephant and The Whale at Chicago Children’s Theatre and TUTA Theatre Chicago’s The Silent Language (The Hypocrite’s Ivywild, reviewed separately, also falls within this category).

Tony Frankel's Chicago review of TUTA Theatre's "The Silent Language."The folk tale called The Silent Language at TUTA is curious in that it is linear (many plays don’t even do that), but the adventure relies less on an actual story and more on the archetypes we have seen in so many classic folk and fairy tales from the past, starting with our hero, Gasho (Max Lotspeich), an underprivileged servant lad who we meet strumming a guitar and idling away. One day, he begrudgingly agrees to assist a talking snake back to its home. In exchange for his benevolence, the snake’s mother hesitantly grants Gasho the ability to comprehend and communicate with many facets of nature, including animals, insects, blades of grass, and the Wind (Angela Bullard).

Tony Frankel's Chicago review of TUTA Theatre's "The Silent Language."Granted this magical “silent language,” Gasho sets off into the woods (naturally) to rescue a princess (Carolyn Malloy), imprisoned by a malevolent Elf (Aaron Lawson), who is in cahoots with a disturbing Boogeyman (Sean Ewert). During his adventure, Gasho deals with varied fairy tale characters, including a Witch (Bullard), a Sorceress (Laurie Larsen), and a flesh-hungry Hag (Jaimelyn Gray).

But there is a reason why Serbian playwright Miodrag Stanisavljevic’s 1981 play (translated by Zoran Paunovic, and based on a Serbian folk tale) is just now receiving its US premiere.  The laborious script, in the vein of Gasho in Wonderland, is a series of events rather than an actual story (not unlike The Phantom Tollbooth, which at least has morals to take away from each mini-adventure). The one-note proceedings include a soporific repetition of unfunny wordplay, colorless verses, and oddly constructed rhythms (although Wain Parham’s largely forgettable original music offers a respite from the annoying structure of the play). The result is that we hear characters speaking, but it’s astoundingly difficult to assimilate; our brains are simply not wired for such perplexing wordplay. Hence, we naturally tune out the hypnotic drone. It’s equally odd that Gasho doesn’t have to hone his smarts to survive – the creatures of the forest are constantly assisting him, giving him a leg-up whenever he is met with evil adversities.

Tony Frankel's Chicago review of TUTA Theatre's "The Silent Language."However frustrating the one-note script, The Silent Language, under the direction of newly appointed Artistic Director Jacqueline Stone (her directorial debut at TUTA), is offset by stunning visuals and a reimagining of TUTA’s theater space that almost defies imagination. Set Designer Michelle Lilly has the audience sit around her multi-leveled set on varied stools, chairs and couches as the action takes place all around us. Backlit tapestries, hidden nooks and crannies, and a ceiling of branches are just the beginning of an environment that any child would kill to have as a playset. Actors exit and enter from underneath platforms, and whisper throatily just behind our backs. Keith Parham’s lights are situated from every angle, creating the shadowy world one would expect deep in the mythological woods. Branimira Ivanova’s costumes are extraordinary in that they seem to have been constructed from household detritus of buttons, tape, lace, and more – yet, as with a pointillist masterpiece, they become as realistic as anything CGI could conjure. Considering that The Silent Language has been extended since I saw it, I can only surmise that audiences are hungering for style, regardless of substance.

* * * * * * * * *

Tony Franke;s Stage and Cinema review of THE ELEPHANT AND THE WHALE - Redmoon & Chicago Children's Theatre

Tony Franke;s Stage and Cinema review of THE ELEPHANT AND THE WHALE - Redmoon & Chicago Children's TheatreWell, things just get curiouser and curiouser over at Chicago Children’s Theatre, where the ever-imaginative Redmoon gang is offering The Elephant and The Whale. The quirky and cleverly rhyming script by Seth Bockley (in tandem with co-directors Leslie B. Danzig and Frank Maugeri) tells the tale of an unlikely friendship between a pachyderm and a cetacean that are attractions at a run-down circus in 1910’s America. The surreal, almost Brechtian, patina of the show makes me wonder how kids can possibly wrap their heads around this story. While some of the characters, such as circus owners, are colorfully drawn, we never find out who they are. More troubling still is that Ella the Elephant, saddened by her years on display, and an unnamed whale, homesick for the ocean, are both astoundingly vague portraitures and are given precious little “air-time” in a show that bears their name (the whale doesn’t even speak, but is represented by a musical saw).

Tony Franke;s Stage and Cinema review of THE ELEPHANT AND THE WHALE - Redmoon & Chicago Children's TheatreFour wide-eyed actors, who clearly cut their teeth on clowning, act out the story line by narrating and give voice to what is essentially a machine. Never for a moment was I invested in the story, which is formal, abstruse and oddly affected. No storytelling, no matter how sumptuous the visuals, will keep our attention if we don’t have a chance to care about the characters. The actors – Kurt Brocker, David Catlin, Kasey Foster and Becky Poole – pedal, crank, and operate any number of truly innovative apparatuses, but all the shadow puppetry, moving canvases, giant masks, and other theatrical wizardry become strangely numbing. And you simply can’t fool kids, who showed minor boredom in the first twenty minutes, and then squealed with delight at any number of clever stagecraft elements. About half-way through, the kids began to squirm; at one point, I felt as if I was sitting in a can of squiggling worms. It’s telling that the moment when the audience was in sheer joy and rapture was when an actor used a squirt gun to emulate the whale’s spout hole.

Tony Franke;s Stage and Cinema review of THE ELEPHANT AND THE WHALE - Redmoon & Chicago Children's TheatreI’m not saying that the script doesn’t contain some ingenious loquaciousness, but the whole enterprise lacks soul and seems to be written with the technical aspects in mind. Indeed, the flavor and ingenuity of the turn-of-the-century devices (including a wholly underused tri-horned gramophone machine) seem to have sprung from the combined minds of Georges Méliès and Terry Gilliam, but the story feels like something that a down-and-out beat poet would read to a disengaged and perplexed crowd.

As if to prove my point, Lifeline presented the most engaging original work while I was in Chicago: The Emperor’s New Threads (reviewed here); this phenomenal Children’s Theater musical relied on script and song, not stylization, to win the hearts of old and young alike. As for the others, it’s sad that the city which nurtured Paul Sills and his amazing Story Theatre, which relied on little to no trappings, is now churning out technology over storytelling. Hey, that’s what I thought modern filmmaking was for.

Tony Franke;s Stage and Cinema review of THE ELEPHANT AND THE WHALE - Redmoon & Chicago Children's Theatre

photos for The Silent Language by Anthony Robert La Penna
photos for The Elephant and The Whale by Charles Osgood

The Silent Language
TUTA Theatre Chicago at TUTA Studio Theatre
scheduled to end on June 9, 2013
for tickets, visit http://www.tutato.com/

The Elephant and The Whale
Chicago Children’s Theatre in association with Redmoon
Ruth Page Center for the Arts
scheduled to end on May 26, 2013
for tickets, call 872.222.9555 or visit http://www.ChicagoChildrensTheatre.org

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com

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