The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan

Adapted by James E. Grote

From the Book by Katherine Applegate

Directed by Dorothy Milne

Produced by Lifeline Theatre

Ivan Gets Children Thinking

Katherine Applegate has been a beloved children’s author long enough now for people who developed a love for reading through Animorphs and Everworld, two series she co-authored with her husband Michael Grant, to have grown up into reviewers. Though those series had their fill of goofiness, they were also the vehicle through which many young people first encountered ethical questions, and got a glimpse of all the amazing things the world has to offer the curious. I’m glad to see that she won a Newbery Medal in 2013 for her book The One and Only Ivan, and that Lifeline has adapted this book to introduce children to the joys of performance. The book is much smaller in scope than those serials from fifteen years ago, but if the adaptation is anything to go by, it contains the same complex characters and situations, with the same wonderment at the world’s grandeur.

That said, this adaptation was not without risk. It doesn’t have very much action, since the main character is trapped in a small box for most of the show. Ivan (Christian Castro) is a gorilla on display at a mall. He’s advertised as ferocious and uniquely outstanding, but is actually childish and deferential. He spends most of his time watching TV and painting, and is mostly content doing so. The mall owner, Mac (Rick Smith) bought Ivan as a baby fresh from Africa, and raised him as an exotic pet. Mac really loved having Ivan around, but keeping him in a house wasn’t to anyone’s benefit, and after Mac’s girlfriend left him over Ivan, Mac became bitter. He brought Ivan and an elephant, Stella (Allison Cain) to the mall to make money, but now that Ivan is fully grown, he doesn’t get as many visitors. As funds get tighter, Mac’s temper gets worse.


Mac’s purchase of a baby elephant, Ruby (Tiffany Oglesby) sparks a crises among the animals. She’s frightened, and still clearly remembers her African home. Stella takes her in, complaining that their life here is terrible, but she’ll watch over Ruby as long as she’s able. Due to a circus-related injury that never healed, that won’t be long, though. Ivan’s friend Bob (Smith), a stray dog who visits the cage at night, also advises this is no way to live. Ivan had tried to avoid thinking about his own youth in the rainforest and lost comforts. Some humans are certainly friendly, like the janitor George (Tom Jansson) and his daughter, Julia (Oglesby), who encourages Ivan’s painting and recognizes it as genuine self-expression (for Applegate fans, Julia has the best qualities of the Animorph Cassie). And Mac has been under a lot of strain, but doesn’t mean to be bad. But as Ivan contemplates his existence, he realizes Ruby needs a chance for something better. The question is how to make that happen.

The children loved the performance I attended. Castro comes across as an affable fellow, and his Ivan, who rolls around grasping his feet and understands more than the other animals realize, is easy for them to identify with. Costume designers Joanna Iwanicka and Joe Shermoly suggest a gorilla by giving him black clothes with a peaked cap and, of course, a silver back. Ivan is vaguely aware his grey hairs indicate he should be more than he is, but until he meets Ruby, has nobody else to nurture. Cain and Oglesby operate puppet elephants, which the kids adored, and were the main source of theatricality for much of the show. Cain’s Stella is world-weary and resigned to a life of degradation and idiotic company, while Oglesby’s Ruby is needy and naïve. The other puppet, Bob the dog, operated by Smith, is a cuddly ball of energy the adults loved as much as the kids.

This being an Applegate book, she couldn’t make the human antagonist totally unsympathetic, even while being firmly on the side of animal welfare. The historical Ivan was transferred to an Atlanta zoo in 1994, after twenty-seven years in a concrete box, in a time when people generally did not know nearly as much about animals’ needs. Mac has become neglectful, and really never had a clue what he was doing. George and Julia have their own worries over Julia’s mother, and find some solace in the animals’ companionship, while caring for them as best they know how. The animals express dismay at how varied human behavior toward them is, since they’ve been subjected to cruelty. Director Dorothy Milne (who paced the production perfectly) says she removed the “darkest” details for her younger target audience, but what’s left is ample for engaging children with both environmentalism and thoughts about relationships. It will touch their heads, as well as their hearts.

Highly Recommended

Jacob Davis

Reviewed March 22, 2015

For more information, see The One and Only Ivan’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $15, to order, call 773-761-4477 or visit Plays Saturdays and Sundays at 11:00 am and 1:00 pm through April 26, except April 5. Running time is about one hour with no intermission. Recommended for children five and up.