Best Play I Saw by Mistake

Critics' Picks

Abe’s in a Bad Way

Free Street Theater

As a matter of policy, the Reader doesn’t review amateur or community theater. But there are spots where the line goes all wiggly. What about a troupe that produces serious, sophisticated work but doesn’t pay its actors? Is it amateur or professional? Or one that’s been an off-Loop fixture for years but basically functions like a community outfit, putting hobbyists onstage? And what about the children? Groups like Brain Surgeon Theater—whose ensemble includes both adults and kids—and the much-praised, youth-centered Albany Park Theater Project challenge easy distinctions between real art and kid stuff.

Founded in 1969 by off-Loop theater pioneer Patrick Henry, Free Street Theater has evolved from a guerrilla enterprise a la the San Francisco Mime Troupe to an arts outreach organization with a significant focus on youth. I’d frankly lost track of it when I got the press release in April for Abe’s in a Bad Way, a Free Street performance piece imagining Abraham Lincoln’s thoughts as he lay dying, so I didn’t realize that the show was performed by a cast of adolescents with only rudimentary skills. If I had, I wouldn’t have gone to see it for the Reader. But then I would’ve missed a small marvel. Abe owed an enormous debt to the cunning stagecraft of its adult director, Anita Evans, who wisely avoided forcing her cast to act in the conventional sense. Her stylized approach made it easy to forget about their lack of chops and concentrate on their youth—and their youth, in turn, redeemed the dark material. Earnest, exuberant, diverse, and just plain young, the kids themselves embodied a new birth of freedom.