Theatre review: OPRF puts on the lesser-known Grimm tales

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By Doug Deuchler

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First off, let me clarify that although The Secret in the Wings is a collage of six fairy tales by the Grimm Brothers, this is not a show for children. We never meet Goldilocks or Snow White, Rumpelstilskin or Rapunzel. The episodes are all pretty dark — but they're also lots of fun.

Directed by Annie Slivinski in the Little Theater of Oak Park & River Forest High School, 201 N. Scoville, this visually captivating ensemble piece is imaginative and fast-paced. But it's definitely not suitable for little kids. 

Chicago director Mary Zimmerman adapted these fairly obscure fairy tales into a lively, quirky piece of theater that premiered at the Looking Glass Theater about a decade ago. 

This is not your usual holiday fare, mind you. Yet despite the tone, there is lots of comedy to lighten the mood. 

Each tale is chock full of gruesome mishaps but often playful and light-hearted, too. The framing story concerns a young girl and the frightening ogre babysitter (with a dragon tail) with whom her parents have left her. 

A sour princess beheads her suitors if they don't make her laugh. An angry father curses his unruly children and turns them into swans. A nursemaid blinds three young queens, then banishes them to the wilderness where two turn to cannibalism. The most disturbing tale is "Allerleira," in which a father lusts after his own daughter who resembles his deceased wife. 

The diverse, energetic troupe of actors — five male, five female — are not identified by specific character names in the program. They each play such a variety of nameless roles it would be impossible to list them all. 

The actresses are Fiona Casper-Strauss, Isobel Duncan, Erin Sullivan, Madison Tunney, and Anika Waco. The actors are Avery Fountain, Colin Ford, Sean Lane, Kaelin Miller, and Sagana Ondande.

There are no deep characterizations; this is not Hamlet or Medea. But each performer is inventive and skillful. One of the pouty princess' would-be suitors, for instance, becomes a hammy comedian with an irrepressible sock puppet that won't stop spewing one-liners.

Mark Weissglass is not just the student musical director conducting in the pit. He composed all the lilting, often eerie music that provides a score for the show. It's awesome to encounter kids like this with such phenomenal talent. 

The pit members are Declan Ryan (piano), Rachel Kaufman-Levine (clarinet), Olivia Zapater-Charrette and Thea Scheit (percussion).

The structure seems bumpy at first but actually works well. All the stories are interrupted, new ones begin, then we resume later where we left off. Each tale is dissected, then reshuffled. 

Technical director Jay Fisher designed the set. We're in a creepy cellar with jumbles of battered furniture, old floor lamps, and a steep set of stairs that go up to a balcony-style landing. There's even a trap door. At times characters crawl out from dark Freudian corners.

The production uses costumes, props, set, and lighting to create amazing images. Joe Hallissey designed the lighting. 

The props are especially fascinating and, I am told, were mostly created by the students themselves. A scene in a wintry wilderness has actors wearing antler-like headgear sprouting scraggly branches as they encircle some lost characters. There's a set of fascinating crowns, also student made. My favorite was decorated with a border of dominos.

The blocking of the actors is imaginative. A line-up of actors suddenly turns into a kick-line. Another grouping starts doing the Conga. 

Jeff Kelly created the whimsical costumes. Patricia Cheney did the make-up.

Several especially thrilling sequences involve the use of shadow puppets created by Molly Lane, a cast member's supportive parent.

Bobby Halvorson is assistant director. Jeremy Pesigan is the stage manager. 

What amazed me the most is that there was never a false step. Despite the broken chronology and the circus-like, non-stop activity, there was not one awkward moment where any actor looked lost, cues were missed, or tech did not function. 

Slivinski & Co. provide perfect timing, unison of movement and speech, as well as singing and some dancing. The Secret in the Wings is a visual delight.

If you want to see your local tax dollars at work and have a good time in the process, attend more student theater at OPRF. They do a bang-up job and the price is nice — $8 adult admission, $6 for seniors and students. And you still have one weekend left for this production.

The swiftly paced show, full of magic and menace and laughs, runs about 85 minutes with no intermission.

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Sophia Carlin  

Posted: December 10th, 2014 7:43 AM

Absolutely stunning and insightful piece that brings a new meaning to the power of ensemble. So proud to be a part of a school that promotes such creativity and beauty. Shout out to the cast for supporting each other on stage so brilliantly and Slivinski for bringing such an opportunity to our community. True delight.

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