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The Baron in the Trees

Lookingglass Theatre Company

at the Theatre Building

By Adam Langer

It was in Signora Ingrosso’s modern Italian literature class that I fell in love–not only with the devastatingly witty Signora Ingrosso but with Il barone rampante (“The Baron in the Trees”), Italo Calvino’s breathtakingly imaginative, witty, and sometimes heartbreaking 1957 novel. Set in the 18th century, it revolves around a young nobleman named Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo who climbs up into the trees one day and never comes down. Part political satire on Rousseau’s ideals, part comic fable, part paean to the individual spirit, part children’s adventure tale, Calvino’s book has the intellectual rigor and curiosity of a Jorge Luis Borges story, the humor and wide-eyed innocence of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, and the romantic pathos of a Chaplin film.

The infatuation with Professor Ingrosso was short-lived, but the enchantment with Calvino was not. When he died in Siena in 1985 at the age of 61, he left behind a treasure trove of writings: stories, lectures, novels, and essays confirming his status as one of the keenest and wittiest voices of post-World War II literature. His love of reading pervades the absolutely brilliant If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler; his knack for graceful storytelling marks his Italian Folktales and his own fairy tales, The Cloven Viscount and The Nonexistent Knight; and an astute understanding of the child’s point of view distinguishes his first novel, The Path to the Spiders’ Nest. But it’s still The Baron in the Trees that has the greatest power to charm, captivate, and move to laughter and tears.

One feels a certain trepidation when a favorite literary work is adapted for the screen or stage: one’s perfect mental image of a novel might be supplanted by an inferior yet overpowering interloper. That’s why I’m staying a mile away from the Jim Carrey live-action version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, why I quickly flipped off the recent jaw-droppingly inept TV movie of Crime and Punishment, and why I run for the remote control whenever the 1998 Great Expectations, starring Ethan Hawke and Anne Bancroft, turns up on late-night TV. When the lights go down on an adaptation, the silent mantra we intone is something along the lines of “Don’t fuck it up, please don’t fuck it up.”

Obviously some members of the Lookingglass Theatre share my affection for Calvino’s work. And the very fact that they’re laboring to reproduce his spirit and vision onstage is reason enough for applause: capturing his magic and grace is a noble if impossible mission. But whether a play remains faithful to its source–which this one mostly does–and whether it succeeds as theater are two separate questions. Lookingglass’s wonderfully ambitious and creative production, adapted by Lawrence E. DiStasi and Heidi Stillman and directed by DiStasi, though always competent and often witty is only intermittently transcendent.

A typical Lookingglass production is full of stunning images and displays of physical prowess, and this one is no exception. In an image that dazzles with its grace and simplicity, Cosimo comforts his ailing mother by showering her with soap bubbles. When he falls in with a band of fruit thieves, it’s the occasion for a series of furious tumbling runs. His sexual exploits with a young exile from Spain and with the petulant Viola allow Lookingglass to show off its talent at circus acrobatics with a pair of passionate trapeze acts. And Lookingglass’s facility with puppetry creates two of the loveliest and subtlest images on a Chicago stage in some time, at least since the company’s adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. In one, a small white kite drifts slowly across the back of the stage and out of sight. The other pays tribute to the spirit of flight and to Cosimo’s quixotic philosophy: this truly sublime moment, which closes the show, would be spoiled by any further description.

In perhaps the most effective dramatic sequence, Cosimo encounters a legendary thief who later turns from crime to literature–in fact, reading becomes an overwhelming addiction. In a sly spin on the tales of the Arabian nights, Cosimo reads continuously to the thief, even as the man is taken to the gallows. The thief’s last words: “How does it end?” Beautifully performed, these brief minutes contain within them all of Calvino’s passion for literature. Moments like this one help compensate for some of Lookingglass’s missteps.

The oddest thing about this production is the set. Cunning and elaborate yet functional, it’s a complex crisscross design of panels, planks, ramps, ropes, and pipes suitable for Cosimo and the rest of the company to scramble over, walk a tightrope on, even swing across from platform to platform. But oddly, since 90 percent of the play takes place in the trees, there’s no hint of foliage. The whole set is a drab burlap or cardboard color. Instead of being immersed in Cosimo’s ideal state of nature, we seem to be above or apart from nature in the world’s best tree house.

Some of the performances suffer not so much because the acting is poor but because elements that work better on paper than onstage have been literally transposed. There’s a fair amount of class-based satire in Calvino’s novel, but those playing the nobility here often give performances so mannered that they’re ponderous. Some of Calvino’s more outlandish characterizations have far greater levity in the book than they do here. Better are Adrian Danzig in an emotionally and athletically grueling performance as Cosimo and Andrew White in an engagingly unpretentious take on the baron’s admiring younger brother, who serves as the narrator of both Calvino’s book and Lookingglass’s play.

The overall difficulty, however, is not so much artistic or technical merit but tone. Most of Calvino’s work, and this book especially, is easy and buoyant: his stories are comparable to perfect meringues or nearly weightless hot air balloons. Here, with the exception of some scenes already mentioned, the predominant sensation is of gravity, of being weighed down, even tethered to the ground. Many of the acrobatic displays look taxing, as they no doubt are, burdening Calvino’s flight of fancy with an excess of ballast.

But in the real world, where gravity exerts its powerful force, Lookingglass’s production may be as good as, and often better than, one has any right to expect. I may not be inspired to see the play again, but it has certainly made me want to reread the book. Oh, and maybe write a quick letter to Venice. I believe I still have the address.

The following plays are reviewed this week in Section Two: Borglum! The Mount Rushmore Musical and Oleanna.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Catlin.