The Innocents' Crusade | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Innocents' Crusade


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Raven Theatre

The question of how to find meaning in an uncertain world has intrigued many contemporary playwrights, but none more than Keith Reddin. "Either you build yourself a bunker," he has said, "or you learn to deal with it." His Peacekeeper is set in a bunker--an underground nuclear-missile site where soldiers watch their lives disintegrate while they anticipate the moment that will destroy the world but validate their sacrifice. Reddin's 1990 Life During Wartime presents no less gloomy a picture, of a society where home arsenals and top-of-the-line burglar alarms cannot prevent senseless murder. Building bunkers seems futile, but in The Innocents' Crusade (1992) Reddin takes "dealing with it" a step further and offers a slightly more optimistic solution. Oh, the heroes still march off--not to certain death, for all death is certain, but to a life fraught with risk. They do so, however, with a clear awareness of what their choice entails and the faith that their deaths will not have been in vain.

The years preceding the millennium have seen a spate of spiritualistic parables, some exquisite as the Sistine chapel and some clumsy as dashboard icons. The Innocents' Crusade has only a few mystical touches, but they're convincing. The play begins naturalistically enough with the Sherman family in a weary trek from university to university as young Bill attempts to charm or otherwise bamboozle jaded admissions officers into opening the magic doors that will enable him to get an education, then a good job, and live happily, successfully, securely ever after--or such is the life his despotic father has planned despite Bill's mediocre grades and test scores and nebulous ambitions. Then Bill's mother casually mentions an article she's read about the so-called Children's Crusade of 1213: legend has it that a humble shepherd boy received a divine vision, inspiring him to lead some 30,000 youths to the Holy Land and martyrdom.

Soon after, in an effort to impress a wayfaring heiress he encounters in a hotel bar, Bill claims to have initiated his own crusade in the name of honesty and truth. To his surprise, Laura believes him. So do many others, and before long Bill finds himself at the head of a motley assemblage of disenfranchised pilgrims, ranging from the lone survivor of a Post Office massacre to a mercurial young scruff who likens himself--in flawless Chaucerian verse--to the squire bound for Canterbury. As the crusade gains momentum and strange prophets appear, Bill's confidence grows and, with it, his independence, until the inevitable day when a 13th-century shepherd boy arrives to tell Mr. and Mrs. Sherman that they are now alone.

Like all spiritualistic parables, this one is difficult to render plausible to skeptical modern audiences, but Raven Theatre director Scott Shallenbarger and his well-chosen ensemble bring it off smoothly, telling their story with compassion and intelligence, never stooping to caricature. Jennifer Avery and Paul Ratliff play a total of 11 characters between them but keep each one distinct. John Rogerson's desperately hoggish father, Patrice Fletcher's patient mother, and Carri Levinson's serenely peripatetic Laura all could easily have slipped into allegorical stereotypes but remain vibrant, recognizable citizens of America in the 90s. And Scott Castellani, making his professional debut, is subtly ingenuous as Bill is transformed from a nervous, inarticulate adolescent into a charismatic visionary.

Life is still a bitch and then you still die, says Reddin, so you might as well do what you want, and hang the risk--as good advice as any with which to fend off despair. If Reddin's thinking continues in this direction, we look forward to his next dramatic essay, further teaching us by going where we have to go.

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