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The Last of the Dragons
Jan 2 – Feb 21, 2010

Illustration by Eamonn Donnelly

From CenterstageChicago.com

January 3, 2010
By C.S.E. Cooney

Lifeline Theatre's lobby is stuffed with boys and girls of varying ages and sizes. Upstairs, the R&D combat choreographer has just given a sword-fighting demonstration, which puts everyone in a swashbuckling mood. Director Dorothy Milne stands in the lobby, cheerfully chatting with the kids, shaking their hands and welcoming them.

Any children's play whose Princess leaps onto stage in a bandit mask to challenge her father - the King - to a pre-breakfast duel has my vote. From her boots to her tousled hair, Anne Sears gives us a protagonist who is tough and sweet and gung-ho for anything. "All I want," she sings, "is to be free to choose my own destiny." It's not a new thought, but it's a good one.

Neither the characters nor the story offers anything very surprising, although there is a lime-green parrot named D'Artagnan who revels in dropping polysyllabic vocabulary bombs every time he squawks. He is kind enough to define the most difficult words for his young audience, making the play as informative as it is interesting.

The music is serviceable, with canned accompaniment and determined choreography. I particularly liked the song "Fight the Dragon," wherein the pajama-clad Princess uses her hairbrush as a microphone, and brainy, shy, awkwardly charming Prince Stanley strums his air guitar. Their singing voices aren't always pitch-perfect, but they are earnest.

While Zywica's sets are attractive, it is Iwanicka's dragon puppet that took my breath away. With its scales of pearl and gold, voiced by David Fink with thunderous aplomb, this "Last of the Dragons" manages to be beautiful, fierce and friendly all at once. It's a good thing the play takes such an ongoing glee in defying "traditional" roles, because some things deserve a Happily Ever After, and the dragon is definitely one of them.




From the Chicago Reader

January 5, 2010
By Jack Helbig

RECOMMENDED

The story is strong, the characters are interesting, and the committed leads--Anne Sears and Scott Allen Luke--made their fairy-tale characters real to the intended audience. The production features some wonderful stage effects, including a huge puppet dragon. The hourlong show flew past, and my eight-year-old daughter chattered about it the rest of the day.




From Chicago Theater Blog

A good time for ALL ages
January 3, 2010
By K.D. Hopkins

As I entered the Lifeline Theatre on a freezing Chicago afternoon, I thought back to the first time I saw real children’s theatre. It was a production of Peter Pan in the early 70’s. I was a cynical kid and did not give in easily to fantastic imagination. Fast forward to 2010—I watched while what seemed to be an endless stream of children were herded into the cozy theatre. They were a well-behaved bunch and I sensed more sophisticated than most children about theatre. That was a bonus as we settled in for an hour of fun with a really great lesson about individuality and tradition.

The Last of the Dragons is a world premiere musical adaptation from a novel by Edith Nesbit. It is of interest to note that Ms. Nesbit was a woman considered ahead of her time in Victorian England. Not only was she an accomplished author but also a political activist involved in creating the precursor to England’s Labour Party—the Fabian Society. The central character of Princess Andromeda (nicknamed Andy) is a girl possessing a strong mind who has decidedly unfeminine pursuits according to her father, the king. She is an accomplished swordswoman, wears her hair short, and likes to dress in trousers. Like Victorian England, women’s roles were defined clearly and if one expected a comfortable life, she would willingly adapt to societal mores.

Princess Andy is played by Anne Sears. She is fresh faced and appealing as the gutsy princess. Her comic gifts show brilliantly in the scene where she is being coached in princess behavior and attire. Mike Ooi plays the King with just enough bombast and humor. Ooi possesses a fine bass voice that resounds in the song "Tradition." This production does not talk down to the audience just because it is meant for children. There is a layered dynamic between the characters of the King and Princess Andy. They engage in swordplay in the opening scene that hints at the King’s indulgence and acceptance of his daughter’s skills and individuality.

Cast member David Fink is a triple threat as the hilarious D’Artagnan, Chamberlain, and as the Dragon. Mr. Fink has been in previous Lifeline Theatre adaptations (including my all time favorite childhood book "Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile"), and here his role of Dragon breaks your heart as the Dragon who is a pacifist and longs to have friends rather than being feared. It’s a fine and subtle lesson about fear and prejudice as traditions that need to be broken in every generation. His characterization of the parrot D’Artagnan had everyone in the audience chuckling. He is physically nimble and obviously knows how to project emotion in spite of a giant papier-mache head.

Kudos is due to Scott Allen Luke as Prince Stanley. He is the perfect counterpoint to Princess Andy’s physicality. His character is studious and henpecked by his mother the Queen played with flair by Mallory Nees. Prince Stanley is told, "You must be more like a prince and less like you." It is another good lesson in appearances and tradition no matter the time. Glass slippers, white horses, and dwarves can easily be seen as the cool shoes, toys, and school cliques in our time.

The staging of The Last of the Dragons is genius in its simplicity. The young audience can focus on the characters rather than lots of set dressing. The swordplay is not too violent and there are smart double entendres for everyone to enjoy. Director Dorothy Milne has managed to project the just right mix of whimsy and morality lessons with this production. Lifeline’s tagline is ‘big stories up close’ and they continue to be true to their word. The staging of the Dragon’s lair is funny and just scary enough. The Dragon is a beautiful mix of brocade and voile managing to cleverly encompass the breadth of the stage.

The music and lyrics are by Mikhail Fiksel, Kyle Hamman, and Alex Balestrieri. It is easy and fun to sing. In fact, I found myself humming the finale "Fly With A Dragon" as I walked home. David Bareford adapts this play from the story written by Ms. Nesbit, who collaborated with Kenneth Grahame of "Wind in the Willows" fame on her ‘Dragon’ stories toward the end of her colorful and turbulent life. The story is a fun fantasy that the kids will probably act out at home like any good childrens theatre or book. After I left, I recalled another theatre experience from the later 70’s called Warp by Stuart Gordon at the Organic Theater. This fine production of The Last of the Dragons is great preparation for more theatre in a child’s future whether they are three or ready for AARP.

If you have not yet been to a Lifeline Theatre production, this is an excellent one to attend—and see for yourself why this theatre company has been a long-time anchor in the Glenwood Arts District and a precious resource in the neighborhood as a whole.




From the Chicago Sun-Times

Musical 'Dragons' tale has fun slaying stereotypes
January 1, 2010
By Jennifer Burklow

Lifeline Theatre's KidSeries' world premiere of "The Last of the Dragons" involves a lot of firsts.

First of all, to the best of director Dorothy Milne's knowledge, this is the first musical version of Edith Nesbit's 1920s dragon tale that turned gender stereotypes on their ears -- well before doing so became common. Research revealed only one other adaptation by a New York theater in 2000, she said.

And it's the first time adaptor David Bareford has written a children's production and collaborated on a musical, although "Dragons" actually took him back to his roots.

"I started out my professional acting career in children's theater," Bareford said. "It's sort of an old love. I like children's theater a lot and I have two daughters of my own; one's 5 and one's 3. It's near and dear to my heart."

Bareford discovered the short story with the help of one of his daughters. They were looking through his collection of children's books for something to read and she picked out the book with the dragon on the cover. After reading it, Bareford thought, "Wow, that's really kind of charming, that empowered princess. It [was] written in the 1920s ... but has modern sensibilities."

So he brought it to Lifeline's attention, where he has done work as a fight choreographer (under the stage name David Gregory). This being a dragon tale complete with fencing, Bareford found himself doing the fight choreography, as well.

"We've worked with David as a fight choreographer on numerous shows," Milne said. "This is his first round with us as an adaptor and we're excited about that. He's a wonderful writer."

It's the play on stereotypes that drew both of them to the story.

"We liked the themes in it and it sort of turned around what is a traditional story," Milne said. "The princess is this really expert swordsman. The prince is only OK at that. He has other skills. It kind of celebrates finding what you're good at and enjoying that and pursing that."

Bareford concurred.

"One of the things that I love about ['The Last of the Dragons'] is my girls are into princesses and in so much of the princess literature out there they are passive," he said. "This princess is her own woman. She's the best fighter in the show. She's about solving problems and she's not about to submit to being saved by a prince because tradition [demands it]."

"Dragons" is set in Astoria, where every princess is given to a fire-breathing dragon so she can be saved by a swashbuckling prince. But Princess Andromeda doesn't want to be rescued and Prince Stanley is more interested in science than slaying dragons.

Although KidSeries' shows are usually geared toward 5- to 10-year-olds, Milne said "Dragons" is "an all-ages show. ... I'm really excited about the music by Mikhail Fiksel. It's orchestral pop."

Perhaps the biggest challenge was conveying the idea of a 70-foot-long dragon on Lifeline's 26-foot stage. It takes three actors to manipulate the dragon puppet created by designer Joanna Iwanicka.

"It's just huge and it fights well," Milne said of the dragon. "We can only see parts of the dragon at one time because he doesn't fit on our stage. The head and claws participate in what is the most spectacular fight of the show."

Bareford said there are four or five fight scenes in the show -- two of which are fencing matches -- but no characters are harmed or killed.

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