Lifeline Theatre

Most Chicago directors haven’t quite got the hang of putting narrators onstage–often turning a narrator, an unnamed intelligence lurking behind a text, into a specific character leads to dramatic disaster. Such a narrator simply relates scenic details (“The sun’s familiar late-August rays welcomed my half-sister Eunice and me back to the two-room clapboard farmhouse where we had spent our Iowa youth”) and bridges difficult transitions (“Ten years later . . . “) without affecting the course of the drama at all. Stuck on one side of the stage like an unwelcome tour guide, such a narrator points everything out to the audience, rarely letting them experience anything firsthand.

James Sie’s valiant adaptation of Scott O’Dell’s dinosaur of a young-adult novel, Island of the Blue Dolphins, is full of intelligent, effective choices. Yet like so many Chicago directors, Sie is ultimately defeated by the Unmanageable Narrator Syndrome.

Island of the Blue Dolphins is a fictionalized, highly sanitized account of the real-life ordeal of a young Native American girl in 1835. The entire population of her island off the California coast was herded into a schooner by Franciscan missionaries, but when she realized that her younger brother had been left behind, she dove overboard and swam back to the island village. After her brother was killed, she spent 18 years fending for herself on a tiny island otherwise populated only by packs of wild dogs.

It’s the stuff of myth, but O’Dell’s book is rather pedestrian, a decidedly literal account of various harrowing adventures lacking the charm, ingenuity, and resonance of works like Alice in Wonderland and Charlotte’s Web. Sie wisely improves upon the text by exploiting its unacknowledged mythic dimensions, introducing highly stylized and sometimes ritualistic imagery. The all-female cast, typically placed in symmetrical arrangements around the stage, create a sophisticated vocal accompaniment to the story, varying from grunts and hisses to four-part harmony. This score gives the proceedings a ceremonial feeling. Sie creates many of the play’s strongest moments through highly abstracted, emblematic gestures. A ship on the high seas is portrayed by two women wrapped around each other, their arms outstretched like booms. A beach littered with the carcasses of slaughtered otters is suggested by a long piece of blood-red fabric rippling across the front of the stage.

Occasionally the impulse toward ritual produces unintentionally comic results. Funeral chants like “Sho-nah, sho-nah, husband hol-la” seem ridiculous, reminding one of Henrietta Pussycat’s curious vocal patterns in Mister Rogers’s neighborhood. But overall the air of ceremony gives the work a warmth and richness lacking in O’Dell’s utilitarian prose.

O’Dell’s book is told from the point of view of Karana, the young Native American girl. Sie makes an intuitive, astute choice by splitting this narrator into two people, an older Storyteller and a younger Karana. But he rarely takes advantage of the opportunities this choice gives him. Since the older figure recounts her story in past tense, she clearly has lived through the experiences, and her distance from the material should give her a point of view separate from her younger self–in short, the Storyteller knows how the story ends while Karana does not. But Sie’s Storyteller has little or no perspective on her own story. She relates everything breathlessly, as though it were happening to her for the first time. This narrator seems no wiser for her ordeal, nor can she offer much in the way of insight to Karana or the audience. She’s so caught up in the action, never seeming to know where she’s headed, that the evening has an episodic, meandering feel.

Most problematic is that the Storyteller and Karana don’t relate to each other. They rarely even exchange a look. And if everything is happening to the Storyteller, then why is Karana onstage at all? The Storyteller generally recounts an episode as though it were happening to her while watching Karana act it out as though it were happening to her. This show-and-tell approach is not only redundant but dramatically uninteresting. Had Sie given the Storyteller a dramatic function–to guide Karana through dangerous territory, for example, or to give her warnings, suggestions, and encouragement–the entire production might have been as successful as Sie’s many beautiful stage images.


Latino Chicago Theater Company

at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum

Cherrie Moraga’s Heroes and Saints, presented at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum by Latino Chicago Theater Company, focuses on contemporary California. This two-act play looks at two Chicano families, members of a small San Joaquin Valley farming community in which uncontrolled pesticide spraying has produced a “cancer cluster.” While one family is torn apart by the tragedy, the other finds the strength to fight for change.

Moraga’s passionate drama contains a whole handful of possible plays: the story of Amparo, an overprotective, guilt-ridden mother driving away the children she so desperately needs near her; the story of Don Gilberto, the well-intentioned, hopelessly naive gringo priest looking for a community to save; the story of Cerezita, the quasi-prophetic 18-year-old girl born with no body, only a head, trying to find a meaningful way to be human. In the first act a series of scenes brings these and other characters’ crises to a head prematurely: Moraga raises the important issues before she’s established the fundamental relationships between characters. As a result the first act feels disjointed and unfocused–it’s never clear which play we’re watching. While Moraga’s impulse to create more than a political protest play is admirable, the lack of dramatic focus means that potentially fascinating characters are underdeveloped.

To be fair, part of the lack of focus can be attributed to Latino Chicago’s troubled production. Juan A. Ramirez’s direction seems all but absent: the staging is awkward and cluttered, and there’s a lack of visual and stylistic unity. The cast, when not wandering in and out of Clay Taylor’s spotty lighting design, seem markedly ill at ease–on opening night they stumbled over an inordinate number of lines. Even those actors who can usually be counted on for excellence–notably Laurie Martinez, Justina Machado, and Tony Ramos–here seemed to be swimming upstream. It’s as if this production was just not ready to go.

In the second act Moraga begins to narrow her focus, tying up many of the loose ends. As Amparo (powerfully played by Laura Ceron) watches her son leave town, her crippled daughter escape inward, and her newborn granddaughter die of cancer, she achieves truly tragic stature. Her apparent psychotic episode near the end of the second act parallels the breakdown of the community. Perhaps Heroes and Saints should have been Amparo’s play all along.

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