Chicago Children’s Theatre

at Diller Street Theatre

Anyone who goes to Ozma of Oz hoping for a faithful–or at least an entertaining–stage version of one of the lesser-known Oz stories will be sorely disappointed. Susan Zeder’s noisy, ill-conceived adaptation, performed by Chicago Children’s Theatre, couldn’t be less in the spirit of L. Frank Baum’s charming, whimsical, and witty original. Zeder takes such silly liberties with the text that her play should begin with a disclaimer: “Any resemblance between this play and any of L. Frank Baum’s characters or stories is strictly coincidental.”

Of course, given the fact that MGM’s The Wizard of Oz is more deeply ingrained in the American psyche than the Constitution, it takes a certain courage to adapt any of Baum’s 14 Oz books. Every Dorothy will be compared to Garland’s Dorothy, every Oz compared to MGM’s Technicolor Oz, and few theater companies have the resources or pool of talent to compete with our fond memories of Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger, Margaret Hamilton, and the rest.

But there is a difference between guts and gall, and what Zeder has is gall. Though she keeps a handful of characters from the original Ozma of Oz–Dorothy, her Uncle Henry, Ozma, a talking chicken named Bill, and a windup robot named Tic Toc–gone are the Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion (Baum’s Ozma of Oz is something of a reunion novel). Also missing are the lesser-known Hungry Tiger (who refuses to eat because he’d only get hungry again), Ozma’s magic carpet (for crossing the great desert that surrounds Oz), and all but two of Ozma’s magnificent army of 27 soldiers.

Gone, too, is the major plot line of the original: Ozma, Dorothy, and company free the royal family of Ev from the evil Nome king. It’s been replaced by another story, or rather a series of vaguely interrelated episodes, concerning Dorothy and her uncle in Oz. The play, like the book, begins with Dorothy and Uncle Henry on a ship heading for Australia, where the wheelchair-bound Henry hopes to regain his broken health. A sudden storm catches everyone by surprise, and in the excitement Dorothy, Uncle Henry, and a chicken named Bill are swept overboard. All three are washed ashore in Oz, Uncle Henry still in his wheelchair–another departure from the original. Oz seems to be a magical place where all animals can talk and everyone speaks extra loud, because that’s the only way they know how to keep kids’ attention in a story that moves this slowly. (A child behind me asked halfway through the play, “Is it long?” I wanted to reply, “It only seems long.”)

After a lot of discussion about where they are, Dorothy, Henry, and the chicken discover Tic Toc and free him from his rock prison. “I’m Tic Toc, the time machine,” he says in that annoying, phony voice actors save for children’s theater. Then, as quick as you can say “Let’s stop the story and talk,” Tic Toc bemoans the fact that he’s running again, because once time has been started in Oz, it can never be stopped. Tic Toc’s long, peculiar metaphysical diatribe had more than a few children coughing and shifting in their seats. Happily, Tic Toc was interrupted by the entrance of the evil wheelers, humanoid creatures with roller skates for feet who like to skate up the aisle whooping at the top of their lungs; that’s the only way they know to recapture kids’ attention after Tic Toc’s monologue about time.

At first the wheelers threaten the four, but when they see Uncle Henry’s wheelchair, they take him to be their long-lost ruler and leave the story forever. Then the four, wandering through Oz, run into the narcissistic Princess Langwidere, who can change her looks at will merely by replacing her head with another one from her closet. Langwidere is totally grossed out by Uncle Henry because he’s old and wrinkled, but she takes a liking to Dorothy’s head and decides she must have it for her collection. Before she gets a chance to cut it off, however, Ozma of Oz shows up with her mighty army of two. I will not summarize the subsequent adventures except to say that they’re as loud and pointless as the others.

One of Baum’s more charming qualities as a children’s storyteller is the way he never interrupts his playful inventions with any heavy-handed moralizing. His message, when he has one, is subtly woven into the story. Not so Zeder, who is never afraid to stop a story dead in its tracks to hammer down a point or two. What makes this habit all the more annoying is the way Zeder focuses on issues that are more likely to intrigue adults than kids. The big lesson of the play, that growing old and getting wrinkles is natural and nothing to be ashamed of, seems far more relevant to the parents.

Zeder’s adaptation, however, is not the only weak link in this production. Rives Collins’s direction has all the subtlety of a baby-sitter who screams to control the kids. Collins clearly works under the assumption that when you’re not talking down to children, you should shout over their heads.

Worse still is Collins’s direction of his mostly able cast. Why does he let Leigh Horsley play Dorothy so shrewishly? Unlikable from the moment she enters complaining, Horsley’s Dorothy quickly establishes herself as nothing less than a spoiled, neurotic, hysterical bitch. “You can talk until you’re blue in the face,” she shrieks at her disabled uncle early in the first act, “but I’m not listening. . . . Everyone thinks you’re cracked going to Australia. . . . We’re staying one week and that’s it.”

Whew! This isn’t the sweet Kansas girl I remember from the Oz books. Could Horsley–or Collins, or Zeder–have confused Dorothy with the Wicked Witch of the West? Even more troubling, Horsley’s Dorothy denies having ever been to Oz before. Her annoyed explanation: “I was a kid. I made it up.” Only at the end, when she’s forced to acknowledge that she’s learned something from her apparently random adventures, does Dorothy drop her unlikable persona and give her uncle a much-deserved hug. (Chick Gerken’s ever-chipper, ever-plucky Uncle Henry really is a brick through it all.) All the same, one hug hardly makes up for the previous 60 minutes of mega-bitching.

Nor is Horsley’s Dorothy the only grating character. Amy Ressler makes for a very annoying talking chicken; Kara Novins, a very loud and annoying Tic Toc; and Mary Mulligan, an excessively self-indulgent Langwidere. Thank heavens for Patrice Whitten’s nice, unspoiled, very likable Ozma. But for her and Uncle Henry, the play would have no characters worth caring about.

But then, I knew we were in for a bad afternoon when someone from the theater began the show with the following short speech: “A lot of things are going to happen, and you’re going to enjoy them.” And then there was the director’s note, expressing the wish that the play would be thought-provoking. I was able to document only two thoughts. One was from a little girl who asked her mother during final bows: “Is it over?” The other was from a father in his mid-30s, who asked another father in the audience: “You ever wonder why, when you watch something like that, you get so tired?”