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Ebeneza/Dr. Stagemaster's Amazing Imagination Machine

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EBENEZA

Players Workshop's Children's Theatre at the Second City

at Second City

DR. STAGEMASTER'S AMAZING IMAGINATION MACHINE

Players Workshop's Children's Theatre at the Second City

at Candlelight's Forum Theatre

Josephine Forsberg is the founder of the Players Workshop, the oldest continuously running school of improvisation for adults and children. And the Players Workshop operates the popular Children's Theatre, which has two shows currently running: Dr. Stagemaster's Amazing Imagination Machine, out at the Candlelight's Forum Theatre in Summit, and Ebeneza, on the main stage at Second City. Before I went to see them, Forsberg cautioned me that both shows are performed by students. "They're just learning," she said. "I'm not even sure they should be reviewed."

Her comment could be regarded as motherly, protective of her children--literally as well as figuratively, since her son Eric Forsberg directed Dr. Stagemaster, and her daughter Linnea Forsberg Kirk directed Ebeneza.

But figuratively Forsberg also made a good point: anyone who attends these shows expecting slick, professional performances will be disappointed. Anyone looking for a little silly fun, however--and that includes children of all ages--will find plenty of it.

Though the title of Dr. Stagemaster contains the word "imagination," Ebeneza displays more of that commodity. The play is an updated version of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, with a female workaholic (Donna Urbanowicz) in the title role. The Ghost of Christmas Past (Steven Chase) is a hippie dressed in bell-bottoms, a tie-dyed T-shirt, and John Lennon sunglasses. "Welcome to a spirit lovefest," he says to the audience before taking Ebeneza on a trip back to the 1960s, when she and her friend Marley had plotted the overthrow of their boss, Mr. Fezziwig (Bruce Green), and her brother Charlie (Chip Schubert) left for Vietnam, never to return.

The Ghost of Christmas Present (Renardo B. Bell) is the rap-talking leader of a rock band, and the Ghost of Christmas Future is a maniac played by Kristian Hammond, who transports Ebeneza from place to place by emitting a horrifying scream. (The children are invited to join in--and they do.)

With such a strong plot, Ebeneza moves forward swiftly, though many of the cast members are a bit tentative when they improvise. And the songs, which contain lines such as "Ebeneza, you've become such a geeza," are goofy enough to make the children laugh.

The 60-minute show begins with a quick lesson in imagination, with the cast members showing the children how to "see" the invisible props and scenery. Dr. Stagemaster begins with a similar lesson: the cast toss invisible balls into the audience, and then dodge those same balls when the children fire them back. But the lesson isn't essential, since most of the show consists of simple comic adaptations of fairy tales with the key props clearly visible. The "Cinderella Phantasy," for example, is a wordless ballet that includes lots of broad pantomime, but Cinderella and her stepsisters put on real gowns to go to the ball, and the prince comes around the next day with a real shoe. And in "Goldilocks" the bears have real bowls, and they keep slamming a real chair down on Papa Bear's toe.

The most engaging portion of Dr. Stagemaster, however, is the improvisation, and that does require some imagination. At the show I attended the children were asked to suggest an activity (playing Top Gun, a Nintendo game), something they do that gets them into trouble (saying bad words), and an animal (Max the dog). Then the cast--Lisa Wyatt, Jim Blanchette, Brooke Browne, Jill Shely, Sean Abley, and Duane Sharp--improvised a scene based on the suggestions.

Among these students of improv, some are further along than others. Shely, for example, seems perfectly comfortable onstage. Blanchette not only looks like John Belushi, he's a master at Belushi's technique of letting his facial expressions get the laughs. Speaking of faces, Browne has a great one for comedy--her large eyes and broad mouth make each emotion as vibrant as a neon sign.

It's true that the cast members here are just learning, but they obviously know quite a bit already. Otherwise they could never have kept a theater full of children engaged for more than an hour.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bob Conway.

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