‘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)

‘Sylvester: or the Wicked Uncle’ is a Romantic Delight

Regina Victor

In today’s world that is seemingly fraught with violence and carnivalesque politics, Sylvester: or the Wicked Uncle at Lifeline is a shockingly refreshing piece. It deals mainly in the language of love, and portrays it as a game, complete with a massive game board set reminiscent of Chutes and Ladders designed by Alan Donahue. Dorothy Milne, director of this production and Artistic Director at Lifeline, delivers a show that ultimately delights the heart. Continue reading “‘Sylvester: or the Wicked Uncle’ is a Romantic Delight”

Song of I, Song of Us: Marcus Gardley’s black odyssey at California Shakespeare Theater

By Jerome Joseph Gentes

August 13, 2017
In my blood Lakota Sioux culture, we call chants of praise honor songs. This is an honor song for Marcus Gardley, and the CalShakes production of his new play black odyssey that opened last night. I want to state right out that I’m writing this on Sunday, August 13, the day after the murders and radical domestic terrorism in Charlottesville. I’m writing this under the cloud of the last few years of racial violence. I’m writing this under the shadow that the current Executive Branch of the Federal Government is casting over the land. I don’t want to pretend otherwise.

A soldier’s homecoming after war is never a simple story, never simply going from point A to B. Any traveler under any circumstance who gets lost and veers off course does not unravel a simple story. Combining those two tropes, and stirring in hefty doses of subplot by way of interference from gods, human nature, and nature itself, Homer (like others) added to a small but vital shelf of epic narratives for all times and all peoples. Small wonder that The Odyssey has inspired novels like James Joyce’s Ulysses and plays like Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) by Suzan-Lori Parks. It has also inspired Oakland’s Marcus Gardley, and with black odyssey he has achieved something extraordinary: a personal and public take on Homer’s poem that not only stands alongside the original–it reflects and expands the epic and the other great works it has inspired.

Directed by Artistic Director Eric Ting, the exceptional cast of nine includes J. Alphonse Nicholson as the hero, Ulysses Lincoln, Omozé Idehenre as his faith-tested wife, Nella Jerome Pell, and Michael Curry as grown Malachai, the son born during his absence. I’m naming these characters and actors first because Gardley, Ting, and company have foregrounded the human story of a husband who has wed a woman, but hasn’t had the chance to perform his husbandly role and responsibilities. A man who has fathered a child but hasn’t had a chance to occupy and perform the role of parent. Likewise, Nella is Ulysses’s wife, but has had to live–and love–for 16 years without him, while Malachai has grown up like too many boys do–mothered, but unfathered. Gardley’s script plumbs the breadths and depths of this broken dynamic in ways that make it fresh and vital, and Ting wisely puts all three actors front and center. Nicholson actually spends much of his time at the very edge of the stage, making music on upturned five-gallon buckets as point and counterpoint to the action. Gardley preserves the Homeric framing device of deities at play with mortal lives in a chess match with dire consequences for humanity between Great Grand Daddy Deus, played by the orotund Lamont Thompson and Great Grand Paw Sidin, the oracular Aldo Billingslea.

The rage and grief and despair that play out for Nella and Malachai alone are the height of drama. Fortunately for them, the play, and for the audience, the Athena character, Tina, who Gardley makes a distant great aunt, moves in to help Nella raise Malachai. As played by the wonderful Margo Hall, Tina transitions from Olympian divinity in her gorgeous Ashanti gown to house-bound helper in caftan and leopard leggings and back again.
Continue reading “Song of I, Song of Us: Marcus Gardley’s black odyssey at California Shakespeare Theater”