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.
Photo: Cast members of THE ADVENTURES OF SPIRIT FORCE FIVE | Michael Courier
By Bec Willett
In the days long ago, before Netflix and Youtube, the Saturday morning cartoon-watching ritual of my nine-year-old self was a cherished one. There was something so special about sitting in striped flannel PJs on a brisk Saturday morning, savoring colorful sugary milk and luxuriating in the knowledge that I had a whole two days of freedom. It’s this type of nostalgia that inspired the creation of The Factory Theater’s production of THE ADVENTURES OF SPIRIT FORCE FIVE by playwright Jill Oliver.
In the once peaceful parallel world of Lej, evil forces have come to power in the form of Lady Mauron. However, Mauron’s source of power – the spirit stick – has now been stolen away from her by Coach K, leader of the cheerleader team in the human world. Enter Coach K’s crew of cheerleaders charged with a journey of returning the spirit stick to the spirit tree (a full tree-sized puppet by Jill Frederickson) and in doing so saving the day with their spirit, determination and cheer moves.
There’s a lot about Oliver’s play reminiscent of Qui Nguyen’s work – the pop culture references, the meta-theatricality and a joy for fantastical stories. There are many moments sure to make you feel like you’re nine again: slow motion tableaus, deus ex machina character revivals, and Eric Backus’s kitschy sound effects. It’s easy to imagine the fun they had working with these things in rehearsal. In his director’s note, Spenser Davis speaks to the rehearsal experience as a “balm” helping them get through the hard times of the current administration. Yet as an audience on the outside of that experience, it’s difficult to feel the same impact. Where a Saturday morning cartoon watching ritual allows years to build connection, and Nguyen’s work includes well-developed complex relationships to connect to an audience, this piece has the benefit of neither. Without these we are left with a quick laugh from some spoofy satire, the balm failing to penetrate below the surface.
The ensemble works together with fluidity and awareness but, with such a large cast of archetypal characters, it’s quick to disappear, making way for obvious choices rather than innovative ones. A few actors, however, manage to bring more nuance to the piece – particularly Stephanie Shum as not-so-perky cheerleader Gilda. It’s a refreshing choice that only one of a trio of cheerleaders is a thin white blonde actor, in contrast to the stereotypes often cast in these roles.
On the evil side, we have the villainous Lady Mauron: a woman whose power is not only elicited from her vagina but in the end is lost to a man who fights her with a pair of glowing balls. On the face of it seems like such a hilarious idea: to turn the classic dick jokes on their head. And yet, isn’t the reason why said ‘balm’ is required is because – to put it crudely – a fully-qualified person in possession of a vagina was considered a liar, her vagina and femaleness a threat to the status quo? When we live in a world where vaginas already seem to hold such offensive power to the point that even a small thing of putting red instead of blue liquid in sanitary pad commercials is considered a big deal, the reality starts to tarnish the simple humor behind the idea. After all, as much as we might wish it, we’re not nine anymore.
THE ADVENTURES OF SPIRIT FORCE FIVE is a production intended to remind you of what it was to be a kid again: to believe in magic, to see the world in black and white, to be certain that good always triumphs over evil. Yet without a core complex relationship to connect with the audience or integrating the context of the reality we live in, it struggles to be more than an exercise in whimsy and nostalgia.