Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Pictured: Ensemble members of LITTLE RED CYRANO. Photo by M. Freer Photography.
By Bec Willett
For and featuring d/Deaf and hearing artists and audiences, Red Theater’s LITTLE RED CYRANO is a mash-up between the characters, themes, and plot of French turn-of-the-century classic CYRANO DE BERGERAC and traditional fairytale LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD. Performed with clowning, American Sign Language, projections, and captions in addition to the other theatrical furnishings of costume, sound, and lights, it’s fair to say there’s a lot going on.
As with any script, it’s necessary that we are first introduced to the key elements – characters, relationship, location, etc. However, due to the vast quantity of content involved, in this production this necessity renders the first act lengthy and somewhat confusing. Yet thanks to the cast and direction, it is almost impossible to become disengaged – the enthusiasm and physical specificity of the chorus of part-animal-part-human characters is a constant source of energy and play for the audience to connect with. However wonderful, the script doesn’t fully justify their presence, instead resigning them more to entertainment and a catch-all for often superfluous information rather than tools to drive the story forward. The text equips main characters Benjamin Ponce (Cyrano), Dari Simone (Little Red), Dave Honigman (Christian), Christopher Paul Mueller (Woodsman/Lise), and Michael J. Stark (Grandmother/Rageneau) with more substance, and it shows. Especially in the case of Ponce’s warm Cyrano, and Mueller’s hilarious Woodsman/Lise we are sustained by both the play and energy that is so engaging in the chorus, but also a grounding that forms the heart of the story. Even with the overwhelming myriad elements, the seamlessness of all these performances is a testament to the talent and skill of this cast and director.
The intensity and cohesion of this production continue in the design. While the scenic elements of several differently shaped platforms are simple, it’s a design that director Aaron Sawyer fully integrates into the movement of the play, allowing Charles Blunt’s lighting design to effectively create the ever-changing mood and location. Stefanie Johnsen’s costume design is a wonderful accent, providing a much-needed visual touchstone to define each character through color and humorous use of unexpected materials. Given the success of these visual design elements, it feels like an unnecessary distraction to add projections, especially as Michael Commendatore’s design often embraced a different aesthetic to that of the rest of the production.
In his notes Artistic Director/writer/co-director Sawyer speaks to the desire for LITTLE RED CYRANO to be a piece for all audiences – both D/deaf and hearing. Sawyer’s goal was to further improve on the issues of accessibility found in past production R+J: THE VINEYARD by adding captioning. While I can only speak to the hearing experience, I was impressed with the decision to give the captions clear voice and personality which were wielded more like a narrator to the play, rather than purely a tool of function.
While Red Theater’s LITTLE RED CYRANO could benefit from some clarity in story, the cast and direction is effectual, as is this company’s goal to produce work for d/Deaf and hearing audiences.
LITTLE RED CYRANO runs through January 7th. For more information visit redtheater.org