Chicago Theatre Review
Dark, Disturbing Territory
Little Red Cyrano – Red Theatre Chicago
Red is the name of the Theater, in the title of their latest production and part of their mission statement. This theatre company strives, in various ways, to “invoke feelings of strength, desire, passion and determination.” It’s also the color of revolution, a spirit which pervades this new theatrical offering. Written by Artistic Director Aaron Sawyer, and co-directed with whimsy and tension by the playwright and actor/company member Michael J. Stark, their current production features a mashup of two familiar stories, depicted in a dystopian world and presented in a uniquely bilingual performance.
Sawyer has taken the principal characters and some of the plot twists from the European fairy tale, “Little Red Riding Hood, and blended it with Edmond Rostand’s classic romantic comedy, “Cyrano de Bergerac.” It’s a curious combination of two stories and the resulting production has mixed results. The merging of these two tales seems somewhat natural, given that both folktale writer Charles Perrault and Cyrano’s playwright Edmond Rostand are French. The play features both hearing and hearing impaired actors and American sign language is incorporated throughout. Unlike the company’s truly wonderful “R+J: the Vineyard,” in which a condensed version of Romeo and Juliet was adapted and performed in a similar fashion, this original play blends too many elements in its storytelling.
Sawyer’s play opens with anthropomorphic critters frolicking around the playing space and interacting with the audience and each other. They give the production the feel of a children’s play, as they converse with theatergoers fluent in ASL and teach everyone else some signs they’ll be able to use during the performance. We eventually discover that these animals are some kind of strange hybrid creatures, the result of nuclear fallout from the last war. They collectively serve as a Greek chorus for the play.
We then meet Little Red, a young girl played with spirit and spunk by deaf actress, Dari Simone. Clad in leggings and a filmy, contemporary titular red hood and cloak, beautifully designed by Stefanie Johnsen, Ms. Simone creates a strong presence. Red is fiercely independent and definitely knows what she wants. Poetry, for instance, is the art form that truly lights her fire, which helps blend her character with Roxane, the heroine of Rostand’s play. Ms. Simone signs with expression and clarity, making each thought precise and understandable. Her Grandmother’s played by co-director Michael J. Stark. Another hearing impaired actor, he’s perfect in this role, all maternal and protective, and the only adult in Little Red’s life. Stark also plays Raganeau, a sad, elderly French baker, whose wife has left him for a more exciting life. This character helps serve as the audience’s connection between the two stories. Mr. Stark portrays the baker as a smart, empathetic older gentleman, from whose wisdom everyone profits.
Cyrano, our dashing hero, is all puffy shirt, plumed hat and a giant red nose. He’s played with panache, dignity and wistfulness by charismatic hearing actor, Benjamin Ponce. His best moment is the famous balcony scene, during which he provides the right romantic words for his dim-witted friend, Christian as he woos Little Red/Roxane from the garden below. The twist that makes Sawyer’s script so moving is when Christian stands before his love, with Cyrano hiding behind him, supplying all the hand and finger movements, signing to Little Red with intelligence, feeling and finesse. It’s a touching moment that resonates long after the final curtain.
Christian is played with brash buffoonery by handsome Dave Honigman, another talented hearing actor, who’s also skilled in ASL. His talent at Clowning is apparent in everything he does, working broad, burlesque vocal and physical humor into every moment of his bumbling, lovesick hero. Honigman plays the same over-the-top character that made him so memorable in Red Theater’s last production, “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.” What becomes increasingly apparent to the observant theatergoer is that, as the play continues, Christian is gradually turning into a werewolf. We all know where this will lead, but no one can be prepared for the dark turn of events that ends this play.
The enthusiastic ensemble also includes Christopher Paul Mueller, who nicely plays both Lise, the baker’s estranged wife, and the Woodsman. Jenni M. Hadley provides accompaniment as a strolling minstrel. Comprising the Chorus are the effusively talented Michele Stine, McKenna Liesman, Brandan Connelly and Captain Les Rorick. As signed dialogue is employed, two small suspended TV screens provide subtitles for audience members who don’t understand ASL (although most theatergoers will find that, due to the dramatic quality of signing, the close-captioning is merely an aid.
Aaron Sawyer’s new adaption is clever in how it melds together two well-known stories. Where it strays into dark, disturbing territory is when the playwright’s ideas surface about an impending revolution that, strangely enough, includes the audience among its membership. We’re continually reminded that we’re all alone in life; as loners we’re looking for companionship. By joining the rebels, we’ll achieve this and discover a common method of communication. But by making theatergoers part of the story, we’re all implicated in the final, deadly, disturbing moments of the play. It’s unsettling, to say the least.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented December 1-January 7 by Red Theater Chicago at Strawdog Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are pay-what-you can from $0-$40, and can be reserved at www.redtheater.org/tickets.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.