Only in the world of Chicago theatre can you find such an exciting artistic organization like The House Theatre. Now in its fourth season, The House has energized the city’s theatre audience, creating a huge following of 20-somethings that might not have otherwise gone to theatre. The company never fails to push the theatrical envelope through the combination of artistry, multi-media, and aggressive and ingenious fun – which explains their reward of consistently sold-out performances.
There are two definitive reasons for the success of The House. First of all, they only present new works that are written through a collaboration of members of the company and the actors of the play itself, and it is evident that this creative style empowers the actors and production team so that each member completely engrosses themselves into each production, sweeping the audience with them. Secondly, and most important, the fare that the company creates for their loyal audience is consistently an artistically exuberant experience. It combines engaging video and original music along with pure athleticism and inspiring energy, leaving one’s senses pleasantly exhausted by the end of each show.
In regards to these two points, House Theatre’s newest work, The Sparrow, does not disappoint. The play follows Emily Book (imagine a combination of Stephen King’s Carrie and Wicked’s Elpheba), who has the unexplained power of flight (among other things), earning her the nickname of “Sparrow”. Emily Bock (believably played by Carolyn Defrin), was the lone survivor of a school bus crash in the town of Spring Farms, IL, when she was four, after which she was quickly whisked away to a Catholic boarding school. Now, at age 17, she has come back to Spring Farms, where she has been taken in by Joyce (Evie Sullivan) and Albert (Jonathan Simpson) McGuckin, whose daughter had been killed in the same bus accident. At Emily’s new school, her school counselor, Dan Christopher (charmingly played by Cliff Chamberlain), takes Emily under his wing, introducing her to all of the students, including the school’s class president and cheerleading captain, Jenny McGrath (an enthusiastic Paige Hoffman). Emily’s powers are discovered at a basketball game, when Jenny, during a cheerleading stunt, ends up precariously hanging from a banner high above the gym. Emily flies up and saves her. Through some surprising turn of events surrounding a school dance, the overall arc of The Sparrow is completed, and the play comes to a jarring but satisfying end (fyi: the show will no doubt be the first in a series).
The director (the highly-gifted Nathan Allen) and artistic team have come up with some brilliant scene changes and interludes, including a performance in the bio-chemistry lab by the teacher and a host of singing dissected pigs, (singing and big-band-dancing to a Frank Sinatra tune), and a basketball game that is infused with some fun, acrobatic cheerleading and MTV-influenced dancing.
Special kudos must be made to the music and sound design teams: Kevin O’Donnell, Mike Przygoda, Jeremiah Chiu, Michael Griggs and Phil Canzo. Kevin O’Donnell has composed a remarkable score for this play. The music in this work plays a huge role in the telling of the story, and Mr. O’Donnell will no doubt go far in the field.
There are a few weaknesses in the show, mostly surrounding some missing storyline and the development of the character of cheerleader Jenny McGrath. Although The Sparrow takes place in a make-believe world, there still needs to be some believability in what motivates the characters, and in Jenny’s there is no fore-shadowing to explain the events of the second act.
Nonetheless, if you have not been to a production at The House, you should make plans to sit among the audience as soon as you can. You will have to venture westward-ho of the main theatre districts, but the short jaunt to Belmont and Western is well worth it.