A hopping fantasy adventure
|Lifeline Theatre presents|
|Adapted by John Hildreth
from book by Richard Adams
Directed by Katie McLean Hainsworth
Original music by Mikhail Fiksel
at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N Glenwood (map)
through June 19 | tickets: $20-$35 | more info
Reviewed by Jason Rost
Having not read Richard Adams’ critically acclaimed 1972 novel, “Watership Down”, I was a little concerned about getting lost with the mythology in Lifeline Theatre’s new adaptation, just judging by the length of the novel and how much would need to be condensed. While the world of rabbit gods and legends with names like Frith and El-ahrairah can be a little much to take in at first, John Hildreth’s stage adaptation doesn’t take long to captivate as you escape into this world. If you are the type who found no pleasure in any of the “Lord of the Rings” films, or just can’t get past the idea of humans playing rabbits (mostly without the pointy ears), then this fanciful tale may not be for you. However, if you can allow your imagination to escape in director Katie McLean Hainsworth’s smart, physical, and visually exciting (yet never over the top in spectacle) production, then you’re in for a fun adventure.
Hildreth’s adaptation, as with any good literary adaptation, strives to stay true to the core heart of the book while ensuring that the action on stage is constantly moving the story forward remaining compelling to watch. Hildreth begins Adams’ tale with Fiver (Scott T. Barsotti), a young rabbit who has clairvoyant abilities. He senses destruction coming to this particular rabbit warren (stemming from human intervention). He confides this information to his brother Hazel (Paul S. Holmquist) and they inform the Chief Rabbit of the warren (played with unpredictable eccentricity by Matt Kahler). After the Chief Rabbit ignores Fiver’s warnings, Hazel makes the decision to put together a band of fellow rabbits from the warren and venture out in search of a new home safe from danger. With the help of rabbits such as Blackberry (a perfectly cast Chris Daley), an extremely intelligent rabbit (in a modern context very aptly named), and Bigwig (a strong and complex performance by Christopher M. Walsh), who has the brawn of the group.
Throughout their journey they meet new friends, enemies and obstacles before they ultimately reach their destination of an ideal new home called Watership Down. It is the Lincoln Park condo of rabbit fields, luxury rabbit living with all the amenities. The only issue for their survival is that this troop is all male. They need female rabbits in their warren if they hope to thrive. With the assistance of a wounded gull they help heal, Kehaar (a bold scene-stealing performance by Jesse Manson), they discover female rabbits at a nearby farm in captivity. They manage to bring back one, Clover (a charming Chelsea Paice).
The other expedition proves to be much more treacherous as Bigwig goes undercover in what’s essentially a totalitarian rabbit warren where the females are enslaved and utilized strictly for breeding. Hazel and the gang lead a rescue mission to save the females and ultimately defend their new warren against General Woundwart (a deliciously evil Dave Skvarla) and his fascist army of scar marked rabbits. Hildreth also finds time to integrate scenes involving El-ahrairah (also played by Holmquist), the folk-hero prince of rabbits who characterizes all of the virtues rabbits aspire to. While intriguing, the jumps to these scenes occasionally take the air out of the action. All the while, the audience is free to connect the themes and motifs of the story to a multitude of religious and historical parallels including Christianity, WWII and the founding of Rome including the rape of the Sabine women (pretty thought-provoking for a tale about bunnies).
Hainsworth’s direction keeps things rather simple by choosing to avoid transforming the actors fully into rabbits, and instead focuses on the physicality. At times, she does have some difficulty grappling with stage pictures when the majority of the ensemble is on stage in this compact space. Also, the opening pacing drags slightly but that is coupled with the simple fact that there’s a lot of mythology being thrown at the audience in the initial scenes of Hildreth’s script.
In his double duty as movement designer, Holmquist helps create varied and fascinating choices in the physical performances of the ensemble. Richard Gilbert and Dave Gregory of R & D Choreography enhance the production greatly with their acrobatic and theatrical violence design. Matt Engle is a standout in his dynamic fights. Wenhai Ma’s set creates some excellent levels and provides a good playground for the actors to play scenes in various locations including into the audience. Joanna Iwanicka’s puppet and mask design echoes the recent Broadway Equus, but is entirely appropriate and meshes well with Hainworth’s minimal concept. Her video design provides some gorgeous, yet not too distracting abstract landscapes, however the glowing orb of the god Frith is perhaps a little too makeshift and underwhelming.
Watership Down is a faithful adaptation fit perfectly for the Lifeline Theatre aesthetic. It could certainly have gone in a more fanciful and spectacular direction (imagine a stage full of Easter bunny suits), but Hainsworth’s concept along with Aly Renee Amidei’s contemporary costumes (the farm rabbits’ preppy clothing is a gas) keeps the characters and themes of the story relatable and grounded for us human observers. This certainly requires your mind to fill in some gaps in the imagery, but for the willing audience member, the effort is well worth the journey in the end. With a dedicated and creative ensemble tackling this largely fascinating adaptation, I think it’s safe to say, “Lifeline has done it again.”
Lifeline Theatre presents Watership Down, running April 29—June 19, 2011 at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave. (free parking and shuttle). Regular performance times are Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 4 p.m. Tickets are $35 for regular single tickets on Saturdays and Sundays, $32 for regular single tickets on Thursdays and Fridays, $27 for seniors, $20 for students, and $20 rush tickets. Tickets may be purchased at the Lifeline Theatre Box Office, 773.761.4477, or by visiting www.lifelinetheatre.com.
Scott T. Barsotti (Fiver); Chris Daley (Blackberry); Bryson Engelen (Silver, Vervain); Matt Engle (Captain Holly, Bartsia); Eduardo Garcia (Strawberry, Groundsel); Paul S. Holmquist (Hazel, Movement Designer); Matt Kahler (Threarah, Captain Campion); Jesse Manson (Dandelion, Kehaar); Chelsea Paice (Vinca, Clover, Lucy); Dave Skvarla (Cowslip, General Woundwort); Christopher M. Walsh (Bigwig); Mandy Walsh (Birdsong, Hyzenthlay); Brian Amidei (Understudy); Elizabeth MacDougald (Understudy); Greg Poljacik (Understudy).
John Hildreth (Adaptor); Katie McLean Hainsworth (Director); Erica Foster(Stage Manager); Rachel Alulis (Assistant Lighting Designer); Aly Renee Amidei (Costume Designer); Mikhail Fiksel (Original Music & Sound Designer); Cortney Hurley (Production Manager); Joanna Iwanicka (Puppet, Mask & Video Designer); Wenhai Ma (Scenic, Properties & Projection Designer); Sean Mallary (Lighting Designer); R&D Choreography: Richard Gilbert and David Gregory (Violence Design); Jessica Wright (Assistant Director & Assistant Stage Manager); Ian Zywica (Technical Director)
All photos by Suzanne Plunkett