by Lois Lowry
directed by Brian bell
at Adventure State Chicago
1012 N Noble St, Chicago, IL
Saturdays at 2pm until 12/5
Weekdays at 10:30 until 12/17
Gossamer Touches Audiences Deeply
A blend of harsh realities and magical possibilities, Gossamer is an entertaining play with important lessons for children of all ages. The author of the play, Lois Lowry, is a big name in children’s literature. More accustomed to the novel form, this was Ms. Lowry’s first foray into playwriting, a process which, as she noted, posed new challenges.
There may be no better venue in Chicago for Ms. Lowry’s work than Adventure Stage Chicago. ASC is the area’s only theater dedicated solely to producing theater for young audiences. Their performance of Gossamer included an opening discussion as well as a closing Q&A intended to help the children engage with the characters on a deeper level. From the reactions of the children, it seemed to work.
Gossamer is a wonderfully imaginative play telling two intertwining stories, erring only slightly into the fantastical the way only a children’s story can. While one story is firmly rooted in reality, at times a difficult and painful one, Ms. Lowry invents a lighter, more magical realm of dream-givers who help balance the drama with fond, uplifting reveries. The task is for the newest dream-giver, aptly called Littlest One, to build up the broken-down ego of a boy, John, suffering emotional fall-out from an abusive father, all while battling the nightmare-inducing Sinisteeds.
The success of the show rests almost exclusively on the performances of Elizabeth Birkenmeier as Littlest One and Victoria Abram-Copenhaver as John. Ms. Birkenmeier is endearingly earnest as her character comes of age and learns the ropes of being a dream-giver. She creates a character that is eager and inquisitive, childlike but not childish. Ms. Abram-Copenhaver managed to convince the audience, including Ms. Lowry, that she was, in fact, an 8-year-old boy. Through the various tantrums, sulking, and insults, she managed to keep me convinced until the Q&A. Supporting these standouts were a host of solid but more one-dimensional characters.
Aside from the people on stage, Gossamer required the input and collaboration of a whole team of designers. Most strikingly, the puppets, designed by Cynthia Von Orthal, not only managed to turn a human actor into a very believable dog but also somehow gave the terrible mystery of the Sinisteeds a more concrete, yet no less terrifying, presence. The dog, in particular, is an aspect of the show that audiences will remember for some time to come.
The Adventure Stage is the introduction to theater I wish all children could have. From the outset, before the play even begins, it engages the children of the audience in a discussion of a theme central theme to the play. The discussion was a wonderful hors d’oeuvre, in the literal sense of the word, and really served to frame and organize the characters’ struggles. This particular play, then, asks difficult social questions head-on with answers that seem slightly obvious to an adult audience but potentially revelatory for children. Never does it lecture. It raises lots of tough questions and gives many unblinking, difficult answers, but it also asks the children of the audience to ask their own questions, come up with their own answers. This is then done, quite literally, by the Adventure Stage company at the end of the show in a Q &A with the actors. This picked up where the opening discussion left off and helped tie everything together in a perfect package. While I loved the concept of a post-performance discussion, and the execution of it was near flawless, I would have liked to see the mediator hone in on some of the more teachable moments. As it was, the discussion was child-centered and wonderfully open-ended and creative with a general direction that did not become more focused as it progressed. For me, as a non-child, it was a great experience to hear a lot of the insightful answers and pertinent questions asked by such a young audience. The Adventure Stage triumphed in creating a thinking child’s playground where children are invited to wonder.