Reviewed by Tom Lawler
Here’s one way to stand out in Chicago’s crowded theater scene: do something that no else does. For Dream Theater Company, it’s a single-minded focus on creating original, risky work that often blurs the lines between performers and audience. In their words, they want to create works that “linger with the audience long after the production is over.”
So there is almost no telling what to expect in a visit to their “Dream Laboratory” (an apt performance space for an experimental theater company). A previous production had me sitting on a dusty crate while a skeevy drunk pushed his hot breath into my face (it turned out to be Artistic Director Jeremy Menekseoglu). Dream Theatre’s current effort, The Devilish Children (and the Civilizing Process) seems downright traditional by comparison. For starters, we’re actually sitting on risers and chairs it was fairly clear when the play started and finished.
Although Dream Theater is almost exclusively focused on original work, for this go-around Menekseoglu has written his own adaptation of Der Struwwelpeter (or Shockheaded Peter), a popular 19th century children’s book by a German psychiatrist of grimly comic moralistic fables about the consequences of children misbehaving. In other words, it’s a children’s book that seems more for the benefit of the parents. Upping the challenge for himself and the cast, Menekseoglu has even preserved the rhyming couplets conceit from the original German text.
What this play seems to really be about though is how scary is it to be a child in an adult’s world – small, weak and almost defenseless against larger people who often want to do you harm. In the hands of Menekseoglu and company, Dream Theatre uses every nook of its vintage Lincoln Avenue storefront to bring us a pageant of Lynchian dreamscapes as we meet poor Little Karl (a vulnerable, sensitive turn by Madelaine Schmitt) being dropped off by his cold father to learn manners at a children’s school. His instructors? The “Devilish Children” themselves – abandoned, abused children each with their own tragic back stories.
The ring leader of these “Devilish Children” is Cruel Paul ( a gleeful Menekseoglu), performing a similar function to the Joel Grey emcee character from Cabaret – he beckons timid Little Karl to this sinister world and cast of characters. In fact, among the many influences that go into this dark, dazzling night of theater, The Devilish Children seems particularly inspired by the German cabaret scene of the early 1900s, which was actually called Kabarett and known for its political themes and gallows humor (The Nazis, alas, weren’t big fans and discontinued it.) This means in addition to the thick German accents each of the cast employs to comic effect, many of these fables end with one of the children suffering a grotesque injury for their misbehavior. A highlight of these fables was a hilarious play within a play about why Little Karl shouldn’t be a sulky child as told by a Sunflower and the Sun. (Kudos to whomever did Anna Menekseoglu’s demented Kewpie Doll make-up – it’s worth admission alone.)
I won’t ruin the forehead-smacking ending for you, but if Dream Theater ends up reviving this production for the holidays next year, I will be back and bringing friends. There’s no need to wait that long, however, go see it now!
Running Time: 45 minutes
At Dream Laboratory, 5026 N. Lincoln Ave
Written by Jeremy Menekseoglu
Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 8 (May 1-May 17)
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 (May 21-23)
Thru May 23
Buy Tickets at http://www.dreamtheatrecompany.com or call (773) 552-8616.
Photo by: Anna W Menekseoglu
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