at the Carrie Hamilton Theater at Pasadena Playhouse
Reviewed by Hoyt Hilsman
One of the unsung heroes of American theater is Paul Sills, whose groundbreaking Story Theater technique re-invented dramatic storytelling and influenced a generation of actors, directors and playwrights. Sills, who co-founded the famed Second City theater troupe in Chicago and directed performers from Ed Asner and Alan Arkin to Mike Nichols and Elaine May, used improvisation, mime and dance to dramatize fairy tales, folk stories and ancient myths. Sills’ vision was to revisit the ancient traditions of oral storytelling for modern audiences.
Chicago native John C. Reilly, who attended the theater school at DePaul University and studied under acting teacher Patrick Murphy, has teamed with his former professor to bring story theater to life in a lively, engaging and provocative production of Gather: Surprising Stories and Other Mischief, at the Carrie Hamilton Theater at Pasadena Playhouse. Reilly and Murphy created the production, which features a talented ensemble of actors, many of whom are fellow graduates of the DePaul theater program.
The show draws on many sources, including Grimms’ fairy tales, classical Greek myths and American and European folk stories, molding them into a series of “surprising stories and other mischief.” The stories are filled with startling twists and turns, as well as a wry sense of humor and irony. In the tradition of Paul Sills, the ensemble digs deeply into a dramatic bag of tricks that includes vocal effects, physical movement, music and gestures that draw on the power of the theatrical imagination.
One of the main narrative sources for the production are several lesser-known fairy tales by the Grimms, including The Singing Bone, Brother and Sister and The Bremen Town Musicians. In The Singing Bone, a wild boar has ravaged the kingdom and two brothers set out to kill it and deliver it to the king. When one brother kills the boar, the second brother throws his brother off a bridge, takes credit for killing the boar and is rewarded by marrying the king’s daughter. Years later, a shepherd discovers one of the dead brother’s bones under the bridge which sings to him of the deceit of the evil brother, who is then drowned by the king as punishment.
In the delightful The Bremen Town Musicians, a cat, a donkey, a dog and a rooster form a cacophonous quartet that manages to frighten away a gang of robbers who have terrorized the townspeople. And in Brother and Sister, the namesake siblings escape from a wicked stepmother who hunts them down and cast a spell on them, turning the brother into a deer. However, evil is defeated when the sister marries a king and, despite being murdered by the stepmother, returns as a ghost to avenge the deed.
Reilly and Murphy draw on other sources as well, including American and European folk tales. In one folk tale, a blacksmith is visited by Death, but before she can grab him, he traps her in a large wine keg, which prevents Death not only from taking his life, but saves the lives of others in the town. However, the blacksmith is visited next by the Devil, who he also manages to outmaneuver. Finally, frustrated by the ills of aging and the impossibility of death, the blacksmith goes to heaven and begs St. Peter to let him in. But, to his dismay, St. Peter can’t find his name of a list of the dead and he is sent back to earth.
Death plays a large part in these stories, which struggle to explain, in often primal form, the mystery of death. In one tale, a rich man is visited by Death, who explains that he can be spared his immediate demise if he can persuade others to give up a few years for his benefit. He goes to all of his friends and associates, but none will trade any of their own time on earth to help him out. Finally, in desperation, he goes to his own wife, who readily agrees to trade some of her time for his. In this moving piece, the couple spend their final years together and depart for the hereafter at the same time, hand in hand.
The joy of this production is in the simple, even primitive appeal not only of these stories, but the primal approach to storytelling. Using often familiar music and vocal effects, the company produces a magical aura that enchants the audience, almost as if they were sitting around a primeval campfire. The versatile and talented cast includes Reilly, Alica Adams, Larry Bates, Michael Dunn, Amie Farrell, Mary Grill, Max Kleinman, Christopher Schultz and Madeline Wager. The engaging Logan Hone serves as a one-man band. Director Murphy deserves special credit for this production, as do costume designer Ann Closs Farley and production designer Jared A. Sayeg.
Hoyt Hilsman is a writer, journalist and Los Angeles Theater Critic for Riot Material magazine. Mr. Hilsman has been a regular theater and cultural critic for Daily Variety and HuffPost, and has written articles for national newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and others. He is a member and former President of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle and served as Chair of the PEN West Drama Awards. As a writer, his stage plays and musicals have been produced in theaters around the country and abroad, and he has written screenplays for a number of studios and television networks, including Disney, Sony, New Line, Fox, ABC, NBC and CBS. He has also written a series of political thrillers novels, including Nineteen Angels, which is currently in development as a feature film.