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Theater Review:

YOUTH THEATER FESTIVAL

BY LUCIA MAURO

Youth theater isn’t just for kids. That’s what's being proven over and over by the Youth Theater Coalition of Chicago’s ever-growing Youth Theater Festival, running through May 20 at The Storefront Theater. The three-day event, which opened May 17, is also sponsored by the Office of Community Arts Partnerships at Columbia College Chicago; and it’s one of the most adventurous showcases for experimental performance.

The 18 participating theaters, whose members range in age from 7 to 21, demonstrate a startling range of issues and styles – from violence prevention to rap-poetry arias of profound emotional depth. Most notable are these young artists’ fearlessness and honesty – evident on opening night. Each performance is followed by a Q&A session and a demonstration of these theaters’ creative approaches.

Despite a shaky start, the Redmoon Theater Children’s Company still managed to revel in imaginative storytelling. This energetic troupe of youngsters presented excerpts from its original version of Tim Burton’s gothic film farce, "Beetlejuice." The grade school-age actors developed the show over 15 weeks and are responsible for the script, costumes and set design -- including a flexible table that opens to reveal masked spirits during a séance and papier-mache bowls out of which pop squirming body parts.

Redmoon Theater’s adult company is known for its magical and provocative puppetry extravaganzas. But there’s a whole new element of wonder and humor added when children create life-size snake puppets and funky ghoul masks for this Dr. Seuss-meets-The Addams Family satire. One of the most hilarious segments features sock puppets poking through a large wall and cracking jokes about how long they’ve been waiting: one laments, "I’ve been waiting so long, I starred in the original ‘Jurassic Park’; another quips, "I’ve been waiting so long, I started eating the scenery"; yet another frantically states, "I’ve been waiting so long, I’m going bald."

While Redmoon Theater Children’s Company leans more on the lighter side, Piven Theatre Workshop’s Young People’s Company incorporates metaphoric layering into its abstract re-telling of Oscar Wilde’s "The Birthday of the Infanta." One of the directors accurately summed up this touching fairytale, performed in the story theater format, as a meditation on beauty and the cruelty of the human experience.

This group of self-confident teens, whose performances displayed a refreshing generosity of spirit, unobtrusively transformed themselves into superior nobles, persnickety trees, lugubrious lizards and sympathetic birds – all part of the world of a misshapen dwarf unaware of his own grotesqueness. The story takes on a wrenchingly tragic tone as the dwarf recognizes himself in a mirror. His heart is further broken by the Infanta’s callous immaturity and impetuosity.

Also on the bill was Music Theatre Workshop, which has a long history of collaborating with at-risk youth. It presented "Real Life Stories," an original musical piece by the group’s Apprentice Company (now in their early 20s). It explores the importance of learning about others by slipping into their skin and telling their stories. The blistering yet life-affirming stories used in this performance grew out of workshops that the Apprentice Company facilitated in Chicago schools.

The most sharply written and intensely acted work on the program, "Real Life Stories" urged audiences to "hear the wisdom in rhythm and rhyme." Especially poignant is Leah Ignacio’s searing performance as a teen who witnessed the shooting death of her four-year-old brother in a city park. Karen McKeegan delivers an unsentimental account of a girl with disabilities who teaches her cruel classmates compassion. And Giau Truong offers a bittersweet autobiographical account of his mother’s experiences in war-torn Vietnam.

People of all ages should open themselves up to the rewarding experience of youth theater. These young artists really have something urgent to say about issues facing our contemporary world; and they say it with a limitless range of commitment and creativity. •

Following is the entire Youth Theater Festival schedule:

May 18 at 7 p.m. – Association House of Chicago; Northlight Theatre Co.; Redmoon Theater Dramagirls; West Humboldt Park Center for the Performing Arts.

May 19 at 7 p.m. – About Face Youth Theatre; ComedySportz High School League; REALITY Theatre; TeenREACH.

May 20 at 3 p.m. – ETA Creative Arts Foundation; Free Street Programs (TeenStreet Theater); Holstein Park; Kuumba Lynx.

May 20 at 7 p.m. – Albany Park Theater Project; Lookingglass Theatre; Steppenwolf’s Teen Cross Town Ensemble.

All performances take place at The Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph. Tickets: $10, adults; $5, students and children (under 21). Call 312-742-8497.
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