3.5 out of 4
Red Theater Chicago’s Little Red Cyrano debuted this past weekend at Strawdog Theater’s new home. In an apocalyptic world at war where humans are turning into beasts due to the chemicals inside bombs ravaging their land, a complicated love triangle based upon disguise and miscommunication emerges. Playwright Aaron Sawyer combines Charles Perrault’s 1617 Little Red Riding Hood and Cyrano de Bergerac (1879) in order to explore the concepts isolation and deception in a grizzly new format.
Opening the prologue with audience interaction may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the relaxed approach Little Red Cyrano incorporates may just change one’s mind. Michele Stine, Brendan Connelly and other chorus members giggle their way playfully among the audience seeking help. Upon consent, they begin teaching letters to audience members and encourage those members to pass on the lesson down the row. This minor addition not only sets up the performance for later, but creates an open mind for the audience to be completely immersed, as well as introduces concepts, basic American Sign Language, and screens with captions functionality allows the audience to be susceptible to larger themes more easily.
Co-directed by Michael J. Stark and Aaron Sawyer, the two French classics blend together through their mutual theme of deceiving a woman, while illustrating the beautifully stark reality in loneliness. Cyrano is a remarkable duelist and mesmerizing poet, but he has an extremely large nose that causes him to doubt himself. The lack of self-confidence lands him in a love triangle between self-centered new arrival Christian and intelligently fierce Little Red. Love and language both isolate individuals. Through an open and non-restrictive casting process, the performance excels at inclusion through what Sawyer deems a “universal visual language”. How does one define universal visual language? This is where physical theater and illustrations comes into play between the two languages: English and American Sign Language (ASL).
Physical theater is a genre focuses on storytelling through physical movement. It challenges the fourth wall, encourages audience participation, etc. The perfect space for clear comprehensive communication independent from the language. David Honigman, plays Christian, gives a most impressive performance in the physicality of the role with supreme expression and bodily incorporation. Honigman was one of the last Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey circus clowns in Out of This World and has previous credits with Red Theater Chicago as The Referee in The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity. Christian (Honigman) struggles to understand the native language in his new environment. He is easily frustrated by his lack of understanding. His name is long to spell out and soon seemingly gives himself his own sign name. The brazen choice goes against the general rule that sign names can only be given to a person within the deaf or hard-of-hearing community. Playing opposite is Benjamin Ponce as the lovable underdog Cyrano, who is also in love with Little Red. Emotive Ponce enraptures audience members in conveying the vulnerability of love through a blend of careful signs and attentive tone of voice. Chicago credits for Ponce include: How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients (Trap Door), The Night Season (Strawdog), and Sylvester (Lifeline). I would be remised not to mention the highly talented Dari Simone, a deaf actress. Simone serves up some serious power as Little Red. Simone’s fluid movement, expression and sign gives a new spin on the seemingly naive Little Red. Her blend of language with subtle facial movements provides weight and substance to this fabled farce.
The actors exceed at the physical, but where this production strives for is a holistic performance and that is where illustrated visuals are incorporated. With projections and dramatic lighting, physical theater is the common layer to this production that I think works with the complex strategies set down with this type of production. Charles Blunt’s lighting design mixes spots and LEDs that transform this small space into a visual playground. With such a short performance area, the key with Blunt’s design is that it does not conflict or bleed with Michael Commendatore’s projection design. This integrated experiences on visual paired with auditory expands the sensory storytelling. The work’s poetry becomes visual. In a note from the Director, Sawyer explains the struggles of R+J: The Vineyard, the first Chicago Production in 15+ years featuring non-Equity d/Deaf actors. The division between scenes told in English or American Sign Language made the production difficult, let alone Shakespearean themes. Through extensive work with interpreters, as well as student interpreters, during rehearsals for Little Red Cyrano seems to have been success as the outcome gave me something to take away from it.
The costume design by Stefanie Johnsen hones in on the clown motif seen through this work. Mixed patterns and face paint are seen in the chorus’ outfits and the bold shiny fabrics of Christian. More classical pieces of Cyrano, Grandmother and Little Red stand apart with peasant sleeves and hoods covering Little Red’s ears making it seem almost like a medieval headdress harkening back to Disney’s adaptation of Robin Hood. A blend of cultural references like the symbol for OK or Perfect mimics the sign letter F, which is used as reference for a love letter from Little Red for “Christian”, who is actually Cyrano’s master mind. These types of references add the humor to an already intriguing and dynamic piece. It is morally driven and guides the audience through a simple theme through complex styles. As a member of the hearing audience with my ASL knowledge not going beyond the alphabet, I felt that comprehension was achieved when words and signs fell way-side during interpreted sequences away from formal narrative. While there are a plethora of themes and morals within this work, one is highlighted most and that is how ignorance truly blinds people to the greater world around them. Red Theater Chicago’s rebellious origin stems closely to themes we see in our society today and works towards challenging social norms. Their bold work is admirable in their venture towards making the theater world more inclusive by asking the provoking questions of how we can do better.
Little Red Cyrano plays now through January 7th at Strawdog Theater (1802 W. Berenice Ave, Chicago, IL 60613). For tickets or more information on Little Red Cyrano, please visit redtheater.org/red-cyrano.
Mary Crylen is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She is an alum of Southern Illinois University of Carbondale with dual degrees in English and Photography. She possesses a sincere passion for the arts and believes zeal shows through work. Follow her on Twitter!