Chicago Children’s Theatre

at the North Shore Country Day School

Good children’s theater is so rare that I’m reluctant to criticize it; before I can say anything negative about Sleeping Beauty at the Chicago Children’s Theatre, I must indulge the urge to praise it.

The show is technically excellent. David Avcollie and Nan Zabriskie, its two artistic directors, are faculty members at the Theatre School at DePaul University, and their expertise shows. Zabriskie has designed a simple but ingenious set. A tower opens up to reveal a room at the top, which is where Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger with a spindle, sending her into her 100-year sleep. While she’s asleep, long strips of fabric drop from above to represent the hedge of thorns that grows around the castle, shrouding it from view. And the evil fairy’s magic is well conveyed by the pyrotechnical display produced when she waves her magic wand. Zabriskie’s simple costumes look rich and elegant; and the lighting, designed by Tom Fleming, changes subtly to evoke different moods.

Avcollie, who directs this adaptation by Charlotte B. Chorpenning, has coaxed competent performances from the young, inexperienced cast members, and staged the action with the calm dignity proper to this Grimm Brothers fairy tale.

In fact, everything about this production has been done properly, and that’s the problem–everything is too proper. This Sleeping Beauty reminds me of Shakespeare treated with so much reverence it becomes stodgy and dull. Everyone behaves in a dignified manner; everyone’s speech is measured and calm.

But kids aren’t very impressed by elegant speech and good manners. They respond to loud, raucous behavior that carries an emotional charge. I’m not suggesting that Saturday-morning cartoons are the appropriate model for children’s theater, but the actors here should have added a little more zest to their performances. Their movements should be broader, their speech more flamboyant, so those children who don’t grasp the meaning of all the words will at least recognize the emotions behind them.

Without this zest, children become bored and restless, and that’s what happened at the performance I saw. Since the show is only 65 minutes long, the restlessness isn’t a big problem; but I did have trouble getting my five-year-old son’s mind off the playground equipment he’d spotted on his way into the theater.

David Williams, as the servant Gort, is one actor who has the right idea. His tentative attempts at slapstick drew some generous laughter from the audience; when he left the stage, the restlessness grew.

There isn’t a really bad actor in the bunch. As the king and queen, Jeff Satterfield and Laurie Koel are properly regal. The three fairies who bring the infant princess the gifts of love, courage, and beauty (Claire DeCoster, Sheila Hodges, and Julie Alexander) don’t exploit the comic possibilities of their roles, but at least they act like creatures from an ethereal plane. Susan Shimer plays Cordia, the evil fairy who is not invited to the princess’s christening and therefore condemns the baby to death on her 16th birthday. (The other fairies commute the sentence to 100 years of sleep.) Any actor who generates a blaze of sparks is sure to be a big hit with kids, but Shimer underplays her role, too.

And Jeanne M. Dwan, as Beauty, floats through her part with the precious sweetness of a fairy-tale princess, falling asleep about the time I was getting ready to doze off myself.

Elementary school teachers have occasionally complained about Sesame Street, saying that they can’t possibly be as exciting and fast-paced as this popular TV program. Avcollie and Zabriskie may be entitled to a similar gripe: they can’t possibly be as manic and noisy as Saturday-morning cartoons–and they shouldn’t be. But cartoons delight kids, which means those awful Saturday-morning shows are doing something right–something that children’s theater would do well to imitate.