From Chicago Parent
January 23, 2015
By Keely Flynn
Few classic staged comedies are as pitch-perfect as The Bard’s “Twelfth Night or What You Will.” With its themes of mistaken identities, pigeonholed gender roles, and debaucherous love affairs, however, it’s not exactly the first Shakespearean show you plan on taking your children to – right? The newest production at Lifeline Theatre might just change that. “Lions in Illyria” (part of their popular KidSeries and penned by Robert Kauzlaric), is a marvelous take on a beloved show which features animals, gentle humor and a surprising commitment to more of the original story than I’d thought possible.
Violet and her twin brother Sebastian – both lions – are separated in a storm at sea and land independently of each other on the shores of Illyria. Fearing for her own safety, Violet assumes the guise of a man and calls herself Cesario, secures herself a job in the court of Duke Orsino (a peacock), and attempts to deliver his declarations of love to the long-mourning Lady Olivia (a gazelle), who in turn finds the messenger rather attractive – and then it gets really interesting.
This show (under the direction of Amanda Delheimer Dimond) is one of the smartest adaptations of Shakespeare for kids that I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. What could easily have fallen into overly simplistic explanations or cloying storytelling was a strong play-within-a-play with a few notable moments of dramatic license. (Sir Toby Belch, Twelfth Night’s raging drunkard, is a warthog with a hard addiction to candy in this version. Which actually makes complete sense.) The color and gender-blind casting of twins and sea captains alike was refreshing to me – and completely unnoticeable to my three- and five-year-olds. On opening weekend, understudy Ryan Stajmiger joined hardworking ensemble members Mykele Callicut, Brandi Lee and Kate McDermott, and I’ll say this much: if this was a typical understudy performance then Lions in Illyria is one of the tightest productions anywhere in Chicago, regardless of intended demographic.
It’s not hard to make children’s theatre funny. It’s also not hard to make theatre that teaches a lesson. But a successful combination of both, that touches lightly – yet effectively – on subjects of bullying, addictive behavior and being true to yourself while trying to love someone else, adds up to a show that kids and adults alike will adore.
From New City
January 12, 2015
By Christopher Kidder-Mostrom
The publicity materials for “Lions in Illyria” boast that it is a “brand new comedy for the whole family,” and Robert Kauzlaric’s new adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” lives up to the claim. While the play is part of Lifeline’s series of children’s shows that run as matinees on the weekends, it isn’t just entertainment for kids. Amanda Delheimer Dimond’s direction of this cleverly crafted script creates a world within which kids and parents alike can thoroughly revel in an hour of live theater.
The story is that of “Twelfth Night” and all the regular characters are present, save one (there’s no Malvolio). The rest of the characters are all represented through the efforts of four actors telling the story as if it were an animal tale. Mykele Callicutt is both Orsino and Sir Toby Belch. Brandi Lee is Viola (here altered to Violet) and Maria. Ryan Stajmiger portrays Sebastian, as well as Sir Andrew Aguecheek (who is the butt of the cross-gartering hijinks usually aimed at Malvolio). And Kate McDermott plays Olivia and Antonia. Each actor shifts in and out of their characters and even adopts the narrator’s voice from time to time, and it works seamlessly, never creating confusion, thanks to rapid costume changes and creative staging.
The humor within the script is smart, wicked and silly. There’s just the right mix of puns, sibling rivalry jokes and jests about flinging poo (Antonia is a monkey, after all). The twins that drive the tale are the titular lions, and their manes are made of tutus. Fans of the original work will appreciate that Orsino is a peacock and Sir Toby Belch is a warthog.
There is truly nothing I do not like about this show. If you have children, you should take them to it. If you are still in touch with your inner child, you should take him or her to see this. And even if you’re a grumpy old codger with no connection to children in any way, you should go see this play. It has the fun and feisty attitude of an episode of “The Animaniacs” or the classic “Muppet Show.” It is self-aware without being meta and it makes a centuries old classic story new again.
From Splash Mazagine
January 25, 2015
By Noel Schecter
Playing at the Lifeline Theatre, Lions in Illyria (Robert Kauzlaric’s clever adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night), opens with a gazelle, Lady Olivia (Kate McDermott), grieving the loss of her older brother. Burdened with grief, she declares that she will remain in mourning for seven whole years before returning to the vibrant life she once knew. This declaration saddens Duke Orsino (Mykele Callicutt), a peacock known for his colorful preening, who greatly pines for the lady’s attention. At the same time Lady Olivia’s other brother, Sir Belch, a brutish warthog with a thing for candy, hopes that his sister will marry his wealthy and none-too-wise friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek (a silly dodo who provides much of the comic relief here). Coming unexpectedly to this strange land are the fraternal twin lions Violet (Brandi Lee) and Sebastian (Ryan Stajmiger), who survive a shipwreck and are then separated from one another. Violet disguises herself as a man and finds herself working for and in love with Orsino while Sebastian mostly remains off stage until the comedic closing of the play.
Although methinks Shakespeare never imagined Sir Toby Belch cast as a warthog, it makes perfect sense (after all, Toby does have that certain “Hakuna Matata” air about him made famous by that other warthog, Pumbaa). In fact almost all of Robert Kauzlaric’s touches work well in this very ambitious and well realized adaptation. More surprising actually than the characters being cast as animals, is the naked emotion present in many of the opening scenes. This may be primarily meant for children, but I suspect more than a few parents will be touched by the young lioness reaching out to Olivia in her time of need.
Also worth noting is Director Amanda Delheimer Dimond’s careful attention to the little things. Many productions, for example, would have been content just to have a monkey pirate on stage (as one character says, “How cool is that?”). Here the monkey pirate goes as far as to absentmindedly pick a friend’s scalp in search of a bug to eat. And while Dimond does makes good use of music, silly dancing, and a few flirtations with the fourth wall (all staples of children’s theater), she never allows these antics to distract from the story. Helping her immensely in this endeavor is the very talented and enthusiastic cast who seem the best of friends on stage. Their energy and devotion to the work is contagious and all but guarantees a good time.
The sweet spot for this production might be the eight to twelve year old range. Some of the plot twists, as well as the actors playing multiple roles, might confuse some of the younger audience members although my nieces (age four and seven) both greatly enjoyed the play. As for myself, I left the theater impressed with this new, but old, offering.
From the Chicago Reader
January 12, 2015
By Suzanne Scanlon
This is one of the more ambitious projects I’ve seen from Lifeline Theatre’s KidSeries, which typically adapts popular children’s books for the stage. By contrast, this is an original work by ensemble member Robert Kauzlaric, based on Shakespeare’s great comedy Twelfth Night. Kauzlaric turns the Bard’s characters into animals: Violet (Brandi Lee) and Sebastian (played by understudy Ryan Stajmiger at the show I attended) are brother and sister lions, while Toby (Mykele Callicutt) and Sir Andrew (Stajmiger) are a warthog and a dodo bird, respectively. It’s lots of fun and very silly, and while the plot may be a bit much for young children to follow completely, they should enjoy the story’s weirdness. Its wisdom too — Kauzlaric takes care to insert lessons about friendship, love, and the importance of being oneself (even when you’re an actor dressed as a lioness disguised as a lion) that feel neither forced nor superfluous.