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THEATER REVIEW L'Imbecile
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2014-04-23

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Playwright: Aaron Adair

At: Babes With Blades Theatre

Company at Rivendell Theatre,

5779 N. Ridge Ave.

Tickets: 773-904-0391;

www.babeswithblades.org; $20

Runs through: May 10

You're unlikely to have heard of Victor Hugo's Le Roi S'Amuse—it was closed by the Paris censors the day after its premiere in 1832 and banned from production for the next 30 years. It resurfaced—with a few slight alterations—in 1851 as Guiseppe Verdi's opera, Rigoletto, with which it is associated to the present day. Aaron Adair's adaptation hearkens to the original shocker, now located in a safely distant post-apocalyptic future.

Society in 2022, it turns out, is structured much like a cross-gender version of medieval Europe. The kingdom under scrutiny is ruled by a libertine queen, whose rise to power was founded in the defeat of her enemy, the puritanical Priestess. The war having rendered most of the male populace impotent, a street trade in Viagra-analog elixirs flourishes, while the monarch enjoys her pick of what virile specimens—male and female—her henchbuddies procure for her pleasure. Chief among the court sidekicks is the Fool, whose cruel taunting of families protesting the sex-trafficking of their children is repaid in kind when her beloved son falls prey to the royal appetite, triggering a cycle of terrible revenge.

The Babes With Blades company has opted to stage the classic tragedy according to the precepts developed in the 1990s by the legendary New Crimes ensemble and dubbed "neo-commedia." This approach combines elements of traditional Roman comedy with the ritual formality of Peking opera to generate spectacle resembling a grotesque clown show, replete with acrobatic slapstick punctuated by a rough-and-ready score of incidental noise produced on drums, cowbell, kazoo, slide-whistle and other exotic instruments.

This decision is not without risk. The mannered performances engendered by the conventions of this undeniably archaic acting style could quickly alienate audiences unaccustomed to its measured pace and formal delivery. Fortunately, the cast assembled by veteran Chicago director William Bullion arrives well equipped with the physical stamina for the jocular violence characteristic of the genre, as well as the unwavering commitment to keep us invested in the story's progress, despite a text incorporating slam poetry, pop-musical interludes and moments of water-treading lazzi. For sheer visual splendor, however, Stefanie Johnson's collage-based costumes and Kelsey Shipley's low-tech fantasy-gewgaws generate enchantment to dazzle the most sartorophiles. Look for replicas of Maureen Yasko's wickedly charming Regina-with-a-you-know-what enthroned on floats during Pride week.


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