Quest for Reason | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader
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THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH

Lifeline Theatre

What constitutes "children's theater"? Lifeline Theatre, whose emphasis is on company-created stage versions of literary works (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre), has made a specialty of adapting children's stories for both its weekend kiddie series and its prime-time main season; while stories like Mr. Popper's Penguins and One Hundred and One Dalmatians are natural matinee fare, works like Kipling's Jungle Book and Daniel Pinkwater's Lizard Music are unusual choices for a Friday or Saturday night in the theater.

Why? Families go out together in the evening, too. Furthermore, certain "children's books" have as much to say to grown-ups as to kids--and more to say than a lot of "adult" fare. Take The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster's drolly witty 1961 novel about a boy who drives his kiddie car through a magic tollbooth into an imaginary world where knowledge is jumbled. Like his predecessors, from Odysseus to Alice, Juster's Milo journeys into a weird wonderland that needs him to put it in order. His adventure gives him and his audience insight into why things are the way they are in the real world--which is just as screwed up as the one he's visited in his imagination, of course, and much more difficult to set right.

The problem in the Kingdom of Wisdom is that the twin cities of language and numbers--Dictionopolis and Digitopolis--are locked in a feud over whose export is more important. (The citizens of Digitopolis dig digits from the ground; in Dictionopolis words grow on trees--since money doesn't, something must.) The only way to end the standoff is to rescue the imprisoned princesses, Rhyme and Reason; so off Milo goes in his electric auto (which in Wisdom travels under the power of thought) to perform a masterpiece of shuttle diplomacy. (No swords or Uzis are needed on this mission, only rationality.) He's joined by two worthy companions--Tock the watchdog, a timekeeping canine, and the huffy Humbug, an up-to-date urban variation on the Cowardly Lion. Together the trio face down such formidable foes as the Terrible Trivium, the Horrible Hopping Hindsight, the Gross Exaggeration, and the Threadbare Excuse--demons we all know too well.

The story, of course, is your basic quest stuff, but it's lifted into a special realm by Juster's clever word games. His main strategy is to literally manifest figures of speech: in the Forest of Sight, for instance, Milo encounters a different Point of View; in the Valley of Sound he encounters the noisemaking Dr. Dischord and his monstrous ally, the awful Dynne (whose grandfather, that dreadful Rauw, perished in the great silence epidemic of 1712). And when Milo's not paying attention while driving his thoughtmobile, he lands in the Doldrums, whose inhabitants the Lethargarians have laws forbidding thought.

I saw the Lifeline production on a Sunday afternoon, with an audience composed equally of children and grown-ups. We adults laughed pretty continuously at Juster's verbal puns and puzzles (preserved faithfully in Gregg Mierow's script, though for reasons of time Mierow has unfortunately cut Milo's unexpected jump to the Isle of Conclusions and his meeting with Chroma, who conducts a silent symphony in the colors of the sunrise). The kids kept quiet for many of the jokes but were vocal in their appreciation of the slapstick action and the tapping, rapping rhythm chants created by director Meryl Friedman and choreographer Rob Rahn.

Everyone enjoyed the likable cast: teenager Rebecca Tennison, remarkably convincing as the ten-year-old boy Milo; exuberant, tap-dancing Colleen Kane as Tock; Kevin McCoy, whose craven but lovable Humbug is a comical cross between W.C. Fields's Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield and Jonathan Harris's Dr. Smith on Lost in Space; and a solid ensemble juggling such supporting roles as King Azaz the Unabridged, the Mathemagician, the stingless Spelling Bee, and Faintly Macabre, the not-so-wicked Which. Their work is well complemented by Melanie Parks's goofy costumes and especially by visual designer Rebecca Hamlin's puppets and slide projections.

The one major flaw in the show (which replaces the crisp excitement of Lifeline's earlier Jungle Book and Lizard Music with a more relaxed, genial, but occasionally somewhat tedious pace) is the same that afflicts Juster's leisurely, intelligently humorous book. Milo's quest lacks the urgency of Dorothy's need to get back to Kansas, or of Alice's desire to catch the White Rabbit.

Or of the turmoil of real life--which, in making a show that's as much for adults as for kids, Lifeline would have done well to consider. On the same Sunday that I was sitting in Lifeline's cool and cozy Rogers Park space, several thousand students, teachers, and parents were in Springfield, rallying at the state capitol for aid to Chicago schools. (Neither the governor nor the legislative leaders of either party saw fit to attend.) Chicago's situation is hardly unusual: public education in America is going to hell, and no one seems to care. Milo (who, prior to his trip through the tollbooth, didn't care about learning because no one had ever explained its purpose) showed courage and intelligence when he restored Rhyme and Reason to the world of words and numbers; we need more Milos in the real world, and fewer humbugs.

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

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