Steppenwolf for Young Adults is one of the great joys and privileges of living in a big, vibrant, culturally aware city like Chicago.
While the shows are marketed directly to young adults, there is always plenty in the shows to attract adults. (Make no mistake, this is not children’s theater; it is theater for mature tweens, teens and college students.)
In recent years, this off-shoot of the venerable Steppenwolf Theatre (Steppenwolf founders and ensemble members include Academy Award winners and/or nominees John Malkovich, Joan Allen and Gary Sinise) has produced original plays from great works, including George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.
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Steppenwolf is a highlight of Chicago’s world class theater scene. Its main stage shows are always edgy and challenging. Its theater for young adults is modeled on that. The theater tackles tough subjects like revolution and brings great works of literature to life. As my daughter, Tess Fisher, now a college freshman and a regular theater-going partner of mine, knows: this is way better than Sparks Notes for helping people grasp the meaning behind a significant piece of literature.
If you’re headed to Chicago with a sophisticated tween, teen or college student, hope you’ll be lucky enough to be in town when the Steppenwolf Theatre for Young Adults in mounting a production (the productions tend to have short runs and the theater is doing only two this year, “Animal Farm” through Nov. 9, and “This is Modern Art” from Feb. 25-March 14, 2015).
The opening day of “Animal Farm” happened to coincide with my daughter’s fall break from college. So she and I took her best pal and headed to the theater on North Halsted Street for an afternoon of culture.
Tess was so moved by the production that she was compelled to write about it. Here’s what my daughter, a bright, inquisitive 18-year-old, had to say about the show (minus the big college words I edited out):
What a Young Adult Thinks of Steppenwolf
By Tess Fisher
Most of my peers have been forced to read Animal Farm by George Orwell at some point in our mandatory education, — and most of us enjoyed the book.
Seeing it onstage brought the book to life. The actors were phenomenal (though they all appeared to have mildly conflicting accents, a small point I couldn’t help but fixate on)—something one comes to expect from the venerable Steppenwolf Theatre.
The play, which is geared toward a young adult audience, opened on an incredible and layered set with multiple levels and a rustic, worn barnhouse look. I love the venue for the play (this was not the first time I’d seen a production on this stage) since it has seating on both sides, making for a truly multidimensional and faceted performance, both in physical layout and possible views of the actors and their movements.
As a young adult attending the play, I was most struck by the costumes and the figurative use they played. The actors wore beautifully crafted masks depicting the heads and gloves depicting the front arms of the animals they were portraying—a cow, a horse, a donkey, sheep, goats and a chicken. Asides from the half costumes that make them the unique, the actors all wore equalizing, military-esque olive green jumpsuits.
The masks and gloves were mainly knit, and had an abstract yet real, gritty effect, mirroring the concept of the play, which is a whimsical metaphor for a very real and dangerous concept: the danger of power in men’s hands and hearts.
The play opens as the ‘animals’ walk out in military formation without masks. Meanwhile the narrator, George Orwell (who simultaneously played a donkey named Benjamin) introduces the plot. The actors then pick up their masks and gloves from a deflated and ghastly pile in the middle of the stage. As they don their animal costumes, they also adopt their animal identities.
Coming full circle, the play ends with the grotesque pile in the center again, evoking the image of hollowed bodies, and the actors marching back in the same formation while Orwell concludes with the lasting theme: regardless of intention, all men deteriorate under the weight and need of power, making us all the same. While the actors’ faces are finally uncovered, somehow they are even more faceless than before.
The play made itself both accessible and complex using a superb script, excellent novel, divine cast, and marvelous costumes, opening itself to a younger though just as eager audience. Steppenwolf knows how to create and convey ideas to the teen-aged audience in a meaningful and purposeful way without making it feel like work or assigned reading.