HANS CLODHOPPER'S GREATEST ADVENTURE
Princess Katherine is bored. Her parents and companions insist that marriage will give her all the adventure any woman could want, but the princess is not so sure--she will not marry without love, she declares, and she will not love without self-fulfillment. She agrees to conduct an audition, however, at which suitors will be asked three riddles. The three Clodhopper brothers, sons of a humble shoemaker, answer the royal cattle call. The two older ones are undone by their attempts at cleverness and sophistication (not to mention lying on their resumes), but Hans answers the riddles with unpretentious honesty, charming the royal parents and convincing the princess that life with him would always be an adventure.
In many plays allegedly designed for juvenile audiences the material divides up neatly between the big, obvious kid stuff and the hip, subtle adult stuff--and as a result everyone feels excluded part of the time. But Pie Story Theatre's Hans Clodhopper's Greatest Adventure engages everybody's interest at all times. The goals of the two protagonists reflect present-day values while those of their old-fashioned parents reflect an earlier time. The way Hans's brothers behave toward him can be observed in the social relationships of young people today, as can the interactions between Katherine and her peers. Director Kevin Kosik has kept the action brisk and energetic, with plenty of kinetic spectacle to accommodate short attention spans. Composer Jim De Lauriea has introduced some sly musical jokes--children and parents alike may catch the snippet of the Three Stooges' theme at the end of a slapstick number, and grandparents may recognize the 1950s four-chord pop ballad in "Marry Me."
Hans Clodhopper is told almost wholly in music, with 11 serviceable songs by De Lauriea and Kosik (who wrote the book as well). Patrick Riviere and Gail L. Becker make a spritely and uncaricatured pair of lovers as Hans and Katherine. They are well supported by Paul D. Hertel and Kristen Skiles and by Benjamin Shields and Renee Krawitz, who make a cute Mutt-and-Jeff couple. Dominating the stage like parade floats (involving much swirling of Dinora Villate-Labin's sumptuous costumes) are Bill Bumphrey and Karen Elise Swanson as both sets of parents.
Pie Story Theatre has wisely scheduled some evening performances of Hans Clodhopper. At the performance I attended, the loudest cheering and applause came from a group of unaccompanied adults, whose ages appeared to range from 20 to 50.
Pie Story Theatre at the Theatre Building
THE FLYING TRUNK
Tom, the young protagonist of The Flying Trunk, has troubles far worse than those of Hans Clodhopper. It was bad enough spending his childhood incarcerated in boarding schools, but no sooner does he receive the news of his negligent father's death than his greedy headmaster swindles him out of his estate. Meanwhile, halfway around the world, the princess Tiar is also having difficulties with authority figures: Varnik the evil court magician (who secretly lusts after her) has convinced her father that all men are out to Do Her Wrong and therefore must be killed for showing her the slightest attention. This arrangement suits Tiar's gluttonous mother, who enjoys the feasts that follow each execution, but Tiar despairs of ever getting a date ("When I pass by, people say, "There goes the ax princess!"' she wails to her well-meaning but indecisive father). With the assistance of three apprentice genies, the two unhappy children are united in love and good fortune.
Those who have read the Hans Christian Andersen tale will probably not remember it quite this way. But William Massolia, Griffin Theatre's resident adapter, has taken the original brief, plotless story and run with it to create a lively, modern, suspenseful adventure with plenty of unsmelly stage smoke, lots of fireworks, and all manner of people and props popping out of the magic luggage. The Griffin ensemble deliver their usual intelligent and enthusiastic performances, with particularly fine work from Debra Schommer as the smallest and feistiest genie and Kevin Farrell (who will probably play preadolescents well into his dotage) as the brave and sensitive Tom. Christopher Gerson's king and G. Scott Thomas's Varnik nicely contrast the good and evil adult figures. Richard Barletta's direction frequently takes the action out into the audience, where the children were as agile in their contributions as the actors were at keeping it all on track.
Griffin Theatre Company
The prevailing tone of Pie Story Theatre's and Griffin's productions is optimistic and the solutions offered reflect humanitarian values: the young people triumph over misguided or selfish elders through their wits and purity of heart, and nobody gets seriously hurt in the process. This is not the case with Chicago Children's Theatre's Rapunzel, which appears to have been adapted with the National Enquirer at one hand and Stephen King at the other.
Adapter Max Bush's reluctance to distort the Grimm Brother's tale--about a lovely captive damsel, purloined from her parents by a witch, who's liberated from her overprotective foster mother by a prince--may be laudable from a scholarly point of view. But Bush is so faithful to the draconian justice of the original that he frequently veers into territory dark enough to give adults nightmares. In this production many scenes are also played just a trifle too melodramatically for comfort--a scene in which Rapunzel is menaced by her guardian with a pair of scissors, for example, and another in which the prince cries out in agony as he's blinded. And when the naive Rapunzel was cast out into the wilderness for her disobedience, her screams of terror and despair obviously distressed the children in the audience. In its artistic statement CCT pointedly disclaims any wish to "teach" or "improve" audiences, but parents might think twice about taking children to a play in which adults mistreat, mutilate, and abandon their children while claiming to have their best interests at heart.
Chicago Children's Theatre at Diller Street Theatre, North Shore Country Day School