‘Montauciel Takes Flight’ Makes Science Soar at Lifeline Theatre

Montauciel Takes Flight at Lifeline celebrates science and the spirit of invention. You know a children’s show is successful if the kids are singing the songs on the car ride home. The charming original musical Montauciel Takes Flight, by James E. Grote (book) and Russell J. Coutinho (music and lyrics), directed by Aileen McGroddy, is based on the true story of the first living creatures to ride in a hot air balloon. The play tells the story of the Montgolfier brothers, paper manufacturers in 1783 France who launched a balloon containing a duck, a rooster and a sheep named Montauciel, a name that means “climb-to-the-sky.” The balloon and its animal occupants landed safely after traveling over two miles, ushering in a new era of manned flight.

The heroine of the musical Montauciel (Kirra Silver), is a curious young sheep who loves science. Silver communicates a youthful enthusiasm for science and learning that immediately draws children into the narrative. Her genuineness makes her character relatable to kids. She never plays down to them, rather she invites them to share in her excitement. Silver is well supported by the cheery ensemble playing her human and animal compatriots: Jordan Arrendondo (Joseph Montgolfier), Carisa Gonzales (Bessie), Scott Ray Merchant (Etienne Montgolfier) and Jennifer Vance (Rooster).

There’s a strong opening number about “the age of enlightenment” during which Montauciel muses that some folks fall in love with science and learning, while others seem afraid of science, preferring the old ways. Embracing the wonders of science is part of the show’s message. When Montauciel hears intriguing explosions coming from the Montgolfier paper mill she leaves home in hopes of meeting a fellow science enthusiast. When she arrives she discovers the sounds were coming from Joseph’s lab. He’d rather do science than make paper and so he hires her to work in his place so he can spend his time experimenting. She’s disappointed but soon learns making paper involves science too. After a quick lesson in how old rags are turned into paper pulp it’s her turn to instruct her new employers (some human and some animal) about “the six simple machines” in the show’s most memorable number. The song admirably manages to turn this unwieldy list into a catchy tune. Indeed, my children were singing about “the wheel and the axle, the lever and the pulley, the inclined plane and the screw (and the wedge)” the rest of the afternoon.

Montauciel also covers the scientific method, teaching her friends to formulate and test a hypothesis. She gently coaxes Joseph Montgolfier toward understanding science is more than just setting off cool explosions and he invites to join him in his work. Soon their experiments attract royal attention and the inventors go on an adventure to meet King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, played by a talking portrait with mouth holes, much to the delighted squeals of the children in the audience.

Lifeline’s signature aesthetic features costumes and design elements that elevate everyday things with a little theater magic. I appreciate this because it shows children how simple it is to take the objects around them and transform them into elements of a story. It’s thrilling when the characters create their wondrous balloon from found objects. The blue sheet backdrop representing the sky starts to billow when the animals start their journey and suddenly we are all  flying. After the show my children were excitedly discussing the types of paper and fabric the Montgolfiers used to make their balloons and speculating how they might conduct their own hot air experiments. Montauciel Takes Flight makes both science and theater accessible to kids.

Most children’s productions at Lifeline are adaptations of well-known books making Montauciel  a slight departure, though a well-executed one. As a parent I celebrated that this play links science to everyday problem solving and brings to life an exciting but oft overlooked historical event, the invention of the hot air balloon. Parents may well find themselves just as inspired by the show’s spirit as their kids.

 

BIAS ALERT: My children are close friends with Lifeline House Manager, Susan Tecktiel, a beloved babysitter to them since they were toddlers.

Performances: Saturday and Sundays at 11am & 1pm Through Feb 18, 2018

* This show is recommended for kids 5 and up. Children under 2 are not permitted.

Photos by Suzanne Plunkett

Book by James E. Grote
Music & Lyrics by Russell J. Coutinho
Directed by Aileen McGroddy

CAST AND CREW
Jordan Arredondo (Joseph & ensemble)
Carisa Gonzalez (Bessie & ensemble)
Scott Ray Merchant (Étienne & ensemble)
Kirra Silver (Montauciel)
Jennifer Vance (Rooster & ensemble)
Ty Carter (Understudy)
Whitney Dottery (Understudy)
Suzanna Ziko (Understudy)
Russell J. Coutinho (Music & Lyrics)
Aileen McGroddy (Director)
Jacqueline Marschke (Stage Manager)
Megan Elk (Music Director)
Amanda Herrmann (Properties Designer)
Eleanor Kahn (Scenic Designer)
Jeffrey Levin Jeffrey Levin (Sound Designer)
Emily Swanson (Costume Designer)
Eric Watkins (Lighting Designer)

‘The Light’ At the New Colony Is Rallying Cry for Radical Love

In one of the most dramatically effective moments of Loy Webb’s, The Light, Genesis (Tiffany Oglesby) describes to her fiancé, Rashad (Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr.), how black women have been socialized to believe they have just two options in the wake of trauma: be strong or fall apart. In response, Rashad suggests he can carry some of that burden and offers his love as “option three.” With this Webb embarks on illuminating not only a series of important emotional truths but also some serious political ones. But, as the play’s title would suggest, for all its weighty content, at its heart this play is an uplifting character driven romance.

Continue reading “‘The Light’ At the New Colony Is Rallying Cry for Radical Love”

Money and the Power It Wields Guide the Riveting ‘Invisible Hand’


Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand opens with a disarming juxtaposition. Nick (Joel Reitsma), an American banker, is being held for ransom under grim conditions in a cell somewhere in Pakistan. Surveying the scene, we brace for the worst, but instead we are party to an unexpectedly friendly conversation between Nick and Dar (Anand Bhatt), the guard charged with watching him. Nick has been trading his professional expertise for better treatment. Moments later, Dar’s superior, Bashir (Owais Ahmed) bursts in abruptly upending the power dynamic, setting the tone for a play full of danger and disquieting reversals.

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A Smart and Touching Journey in Jessica Dickey’s The Rembrandt

Hallie Palladino

In a gallery at The Metropolitan Museum of Art Henry (Francis Guinan) guards Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer. If it really depicts Aristotle at all. Henry is partial to the argument Rembrandt may have substituted the Greek painter Apelles in the philosopher’s place as an affront to the wealthy Italian who commissioned it. Were artists the true philosophers in Rembrandt’s opinion? For Henry, a scholarly man who has spent his life studying paintings and loving a poet, this seems about right. So begins Jessica Dickey’s funny and touching play, The Rembrandt, now enjoying its Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre in an elegantly designed production directed by Hallie Gordon.

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“The Invisible Scarlet O’Neill” is a Fun, Feminist Revival of a Classic Comic Book Heroine

When Barbara Lhota learned of Russell Stamm’s 1940s comic strip, The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil, she felt compelled to revive the title character. The comic, which ran for sixteen years in the now defunct Chicago Times, featured one of the first female superheroes, predating Wonder Woman by a year. It struck the playwright as both appropriate and ironic that Scarlet’s superpower is invisibility. In a way familiar to many women, Scarlet leverages the advantage of being unseen. Under the cloak of her invisibility, she aids the vulnerable, while in her professional life as a reporter she fights alongside her compatriots for visibility and recognition. Lhota’s stage version is a perfect fit for Babes with Blades, a company devoted to using stage combat to tell women’s stories. The show, currently running at The Factory Theater, is fun and fresh while invoking the spirit of the period. Continue reading ““The Invisible Scarlet O’Neill” is a Fun, Feminist Revival of a Classic Comic Book Heroine”

Walkabout Theater’s ‘A Persephone Pageant’ Reimagines the Demeter Myth as a Parable About Climate Change

Hallie Palladino

(Featured image: Obsessive Eye Photography)

Walkabout Theater just finished a tour of their their newest devised piece, A Persephone Pageant. My children and I caught the recent Chicago performance on the grassy lawn behind The University of Chicago’s Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. The family friendly pageant, co-directed by Jessica Thebus and Thom Pasculli, incorporates original text by Sarah Ruhl and Morgan McNaught and features choreography by Kristina Isabelle, music by Mark Messing and puppets by K.T. Sivak and Jackie Valdez. The play updates the Demeter myth imagining Persephone as Water and Hades as Greed, remaking the story into a contemporary parable about climate change. Continue reading “Walkabout Theater’s ‘A Persephone Pageant’ Reimagines the Demeter Myth as a Parable About Climate Change”

A Phenomenal and Heartbreaking ‘Lela & Co.’ Extends at Steep

By Hallie Palladino

Steep Theatre has just extended its devastating and urgently important play, Lela & Co. I wanted to take a moment to recommend this production and encourage people to see it now that it has been extended through September 16th.

I feel so fortunate to have seen Cruz Gonzales-Cadel play Lela in this heartbreaking two-hander opposite Chris Chmelik. Gonzales-Cadel has phenomenal range. We immediately fall in love with Lela as she disarms us with her charm and draws us into her story.We start in Lela’s childhood home with a loving mother and a father who alternates between indulgent and abusive. The limited abilities of women to shield each other from harm is a theme established early. As the dangers around her multiply, we watch Lela transform from an innocent child into a determined and courageous woman. For his part, Chmelik plays a host of villains, each fully fleshed out, each differently evil. Written by the British playwright Cordelia Lynn when she was just twenty-six, Lela is original in every way. Lynn speaks the unspeakable and holds us all accountable.

I won’t describe or summarize the story because much of its dramatic value is in its surprises. We never know what’s about to happen and, like Lela, we feel powerless to stop the cascade of horrors that unfold as she recounts her story. I’ve never felt so much real fear, rage and despair in the theater. A big part of it was knowing, more than a play, what happens to Lela is happening to to girls and women around the world every day.

Lela examines the way women become casualties of war showing how their stories are coopted, their voices silenced and their abuse marginalized. The narrative style creates the experience of being inside the head of a women who has internalized the narrative of her abusers along side the truth of her lived experience. This gives the audience an opportunity to experience the cognitive dissonance that results from trauma. The tone of Robin Witt’s direction creates jarring juxtapositions between the events that happen to Lela and the way she describes them. Lela uses a range of coping techniques from detachment, to rationalization, to minimizing, to self-blame. All the time as her underlying grief, rage and pain are straining to be let out. By the time Lela hits its crescendo and the playwright allows her character to enact a desperately longed for moment of confrontation all the air goes out of the room.

The space has been transformed into an intimate café with limited cabaret style seating and the actors perform on raised platforms above our heads. The action happens around the audience so we’re immersed and therefore implicated in Lela’s predicament. All the design elements seamlessly support this atmosphere of fear and claustrophobia.

I must end with a really big trigger warning here. There is graphic sexual violence both portrayed and discussed. This play deals plainly with some of the darkest subject matter I’ve ever heard onstage. Lela explicates the economic and political circumstances of war and how they enable the exploitation of women. Lynn’s story also reveals the tragic irony of how third party “liberating” and “peacekeeping” forces in conflict zones participate in crimes against women. No, Cordelia Lynn’s play isn’t easy to watch, but it is essential.

BIAS ALERT: Cruz and I know each other from Something Marvelous and have bonded over having children around the same age. Likewise, I know Peter Moore, Steep’s Artistic Director, because our kids were in the same class and I’ve submitted my work to his literary department. All this just means I was already a fan of the theater and of Cruz before I went to see this play.

Extended through September 16th!

CAST:
Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel
Chris Chmelik

PRODUCTION TEAM:
Director – Robin Witt*
Stage Manager – Lauren Lassus**
Set Design – Joe Schermoly
Lighting Design – Brandon Wardell**
Sound Design – Thomas Dixon**
Costume Design  – Jessica Kuehnau Wardell
Prop Design – Maria DeFabo**
Fight Choreography – Christina Gorman
Dramaturg – Carina Abbaticchio
Assistant Directors – Michael Rogerson & Isabel Perry
Production Manager – Julia Siple*

*Denotes Steep Company Member
**Denotes Steep Artistic Associate

The Comrades ‘In The Wake’ Examines Liberal Blind Spots Post 9/11

Lisa Kron’s 2010 play In the Wake, produced by The Comrades at the Greenhouse Theater, revisits the political events of 2000-2005 beginning with the Supreme Court decision in Bush vs. Gore. In the Wake is concerned with the ways American liberals, especially privileged white coastal liberals, develop blind spots that prevent them from fully understanding the life circumstances that might cause a person to cultivate a conservative viewpoint. This is a timely subject in the wake of Trump’s rise to power, although the play predates it. The play makes important points about the state of American political discourse though it is somewhat weighted down by an unwieldy structure.

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Fisticuffs and Feminism in The Factory Theater’s ‘Fight City’

By Hallie Palladino

In a video interview on The Factory Theater website, Artistic Director Scott OKen says of the genesis of his latest play, Fight City, “I wanted to turn the current gender politics around… [and] I wanted to do an action play…that has a real kickass female police force that beat each other up with sticks.” This is exactly what Fight City delivers in the form of a clever comedy that satirizes standard sexist tropes within the action genre. Continue reading “Fisticuffs and Feminism in The Factory Theater’s ‘Fight City’”