Wintery Tails | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Lifeline Theatre

Sixteen reasons for adults with no children to go see Wintery Tails:

(1) It has a running time of less than an hour and plays at 2 on Saturdays--just long enough to be a nice break in Saturday-afternoon errands.

(2) You pay what you can for admission, which may make this the only show we can afford during the postholiday financial slump.

(3) No special theological or ethnographical information is necessary to understand these two stories. Neither is about Christmas or Hanukkah per se, but both deal with the themes of community and sharing, and those play anywhere, anytime.

(4) There are carpet squares on the floor where the young can sit, and chairs for the, uh, nonyoung.

(5) Isaac Bashevis Singer's Zlateh the Goat, adapted from a short story, is a tale of affection between a boy and his goat when the two are forced by a terrible storm to seek refuge inside a haystack for three days. Even if your only pet was a talented cockroach, you'll be touched by this.

(6) Kenneth Grahame's "Dolce Domum"--"Sweet Home," an excerpt from The Wind in the Willows--is the story of how Rat and Mole open up one of the latter's long-deserted houses and entertain a band of carolers. This is a more complex narrative, and contains many quaint little details--Mole and Rat removing their hats, for example, to salute a statue of Queen Victoria--more easily appreciated by adults than children.

(7) The prospect of the gentle and affectionate Zlateh being sold to a butcher and the intense homesickness of Mole for old and familiar surroundings tap into our earliest childhood fears and longings, making our response painfully immediate. In children's theater, the actors are permitted to pull out all the emotional stops: when they're happy, they can clap their hands and jump up and down; when they're sad, they can cry --and when they cry, we cry. It's all right--we're grown-up, we can cry when we damn well please.

(8) The delight of both these plays is the same delight that moved an adult audience viewing an "adult" play--Larry Shue's The Foreigner at Synergy Center--to cheer when the threat had been lifted and safety was assured.

(9) Actor Alan Ball plays a character in Zlateh the Goat not unlike the character he plays in The Foreigner: a young man of limited intellect but possessed of infinite compassion and purity of heart--the epitome of our American hero. Anyone skeptical about this comparison may see both plays and rebut as they see fit.

(10) Zlateh and "Dolce Domum," both for three actors, are staged in a (somewhat modified) Paul Sills manner: each actor takes one character voice, but all three share the narration. Those audience members old enough to remember Sills's revolutionary story theater, who will thus know how his technique differs from traditional ensemble story telling, can have fun explaining it to those who aren't and don't.

(11) Irreverent collegians looking for Freudian overtones can note how closely the boy-goat relationship in Zlateh resembles mother-infant bonding, and have a sophomoric chuckle over it.

(12) Contemplative audience members can consider the irony of the fact that Grahame's son, for whom The Wind in the Willows was written, committed suicide in 1920, at the age of 15. The adolescence of a child reduced to a literary object cannot be an easy one (cf Alice Liddell and Christopher Milne).

(13) The three actors in each story--Meryl Friedman, Sandy Snyder, and Ball--have clear, perfectly pitched voices, knife-edged discipline, boundless energy, and a rock-solid seriousness about their characters. (Don't underestimate the importance of this last characteristic--nothing loses an adult or juvenile audience faster than an actor who makes sure we understand he's hipper than the character he's playing.) Of the children in this audience, 99 percent concentrated on the onstage action for 85 percent of the time. Anyone familiar with what Roger Ebert calls the "thunder index" (for the number of children thundering in the aisles) will recognize this as a pretty good ratio.

(14) The trick by which one actor becomes a whole band of carolers is so simple and so clever, it's amazing that adult productions don't use it more often. (It pulled the biggest laugh from the adults in the audience, not the children.) Equally simple and clever were the snowstorm represented by a white sheet being whipped through the air and a haystack by a large yellow beach parasol.

(15) A portion of "Dolce Domum" is given over to audience participation. And when the children were encouraged to recite something, many did so surprisingly well. The afternoon I was there, I heard an account of the Red Riding Hood incident as concise and articulate as a police report.

(16) Seeing the behavior of the various-aged audience members awakens a fresh sympathy for acquaintances with young children. Just think, when our contemporaries accompany children to plays like this, they have to act like parents, instead of relaxing and being kids for a while.

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