Theatre Reviews

Lions in Illyria

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Lions in Illyria

Adapted by Robert Kauzlaric

Directed by Amanda Delheimer Dimond

Produced by Lifeline Theatre

Shakespeare Struggles to Compete With Nap-Time

Could you find a way to present Twelfth Night in a way that is basically true to the story, but comprehensible to kindergarteners? Neither could Lifeline. Robert Kauzlaric’s world premiere adaptation turns its characters into talking animals to make them more fun to children, and labors hard to convince them that love isn’t icky and help keep its eight characters played by four actors straight. But the company’s website recommends the show for ages 5 and up, a demographic also targeted by the poster artwork, and there is just no way to make that work. With older children, perhaps in the 8-11 range, the show might have more success, but that’s not who I saw there, and the plot is simply too complex and outside small children’s areas of interest.

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The primary problem is Kauzlaric hasn’t simplified the plot so much as sped it up. Twin lions Violet (Brandi Lee) and Sebastian (Bryan Bosque ordinarily, but understudy Ryan Stajmiger at press opening) are separated in a shipwreck, and land in Illyria each thinking the other dead. Sebastian is led offstage for nearly the entire play by Antonia the female pirate monkey (Kate McDermott), while Violet disguises herself in a mane because people are so much less likely to pick fights with male lions. (I think this was the first thing that confused the children.)

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Violet, under the masculine name Cesario, encounters and falls in love with the peacock Orsino (Mykele Callicutt), who sends her to woo the gazelle Olivia (McDermott). But Olivia is in mourning for her dead brother, and falls in love with the disguised Violet. Olivia’s surviving brother, warthog Sir Toby Belch (Callicutt), has developed a candy addiction that makes him irritable and impulsive, and which he feeds through a manipulative friendship with dodo Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Bosque/Stajmiger). The hyena Maria hopes to impress Sir Toby by coming up with a nasty trick on Sir Andrew.

Combining Sir Andrew and Malvolio into the same character actually made the story more complicated. I understand the reasoning¬ it wouldn’t teach kids the right message to have the “bad guy” be the one in such a subservient position for most of the play¬ but it makes a major point of his and Sir Toby’s relationship that distracts from the love triangle, and requires lots more quick changes. The fool’s role has also been largely subsumed into other characters, but not enough song and movement remains. It’s too bad because the song, a parody of Pharrell Williams’s “Happy,” and the duel late in the play are the segments that interested children the most, and Twelfth Night has lots of music. Making Sir Toby Olivia’s brother instead of uncle was a smarter move. But other than the characters nominally being animals, the story really isn’t that fantastical.

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The actors have to juggle their two characters and the moments when they are speaking as themselves in the chorus. Costume designer Izumi Inaba provided clothing articles that cleverly suggest animals, like tutus for manes and a paisley print robe and large fan for a peacock. These costume pieces are necessities are a major help in distinguishing the different roles, even though the actors try to make the voices and body language different. Callicutt is the one with the most extreme difference between his two characters, alternating the melancholy and refined Orsino with the crass and nasty Sir Toby. The actors are all project friendliness, though I thought the understudy Stajmiger to be the most enthusiastic. Joe Schermoly’s scenic design is basically an attic with a few spaces for quick-changes, allowing children to engage their imagination. Though the show drags in places, Dimond’s direction towards the end moves it too hastily, making the story more difficult to follow at the time when everything is supposed to be resolved.

I appreciate the intention of bringing Shakespeare to a young audience, but besides the story being wrong for K through 2nd graders, Kauzlaric also goes way above their vocabulary. An early joke referencing “complex socio-economic structures” is a good example of not playing on two levels at once. The script also takes a few moments to address the death of Olivia’s and Sir Toby’s brother, but that’s not the kind of thing you can sweep away with just a few lines. The children at the performance I saw weren’t disruptive, but they squirmed around, and after the show I heard many parents trying to convince them they’d enjoyed it. I do think the show could be interesting for an older child, but Lifeline’s outreach or reputation had clearly attracted children from early elementary school. Kids from late elementary school might have engaged enough to change the whole atmosphere.

Somewhat Recommended

Jacob Davis
[email protected]

Reviewed January 11, 2015

For more information, see Lions in Illyria’s page at Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 North Glenwood Ave. For tickets, call 773-761-4477, or visit Tickets are $15. Plays Saturdays and Sundays at 11:00 am and 1:00 pm through February 15. Running time is about seventy minutes. Children under 2 not admitted.