September 24, 2015
By Christopher Kidder-Mostrom
With only three months left in 2015, I am pretty sure that I can safely dub “Miss Buncle’s Book” at Lifeline Theatre one of my favorite plays of the year. I cannot be sure it will remain on top as there are about 100 days left before 2016, but it is a safe bet that it will remain in my personal top five.
The show has charm, wit and a protagonist that gains your support the moment you meet her. The small and mousy Barbara Buncle (Jenifer Tyler) has written a fictional exposé of her hometown of Silverstream, England. Her book becomes wildly popular, which is not particularly appreciated by the people of her village. It is a good thing she wrote her book under a pen name, for some of the villagers are out for blood. You see, the book points out how terrible the people of the town are, and at the same time suggests ways that they can become better. Some of them actually adopt the suggestions within Miss Buncle’s book, others fight progress tooth and nail.
Katie McLean Hainsworth takes a stellar turn as the town’s vicious busybody and former chorus girl, Mrs. Featherstone Hogg. While Miss Buncle is the hero of the story, much of the action is driven by the efforts of Hainsworth’s character. Two additional standouts are Sean Sinitski and Tiffany Oglesby as Col. Weatherhead and his beloved Dorothea Bold, respectively. Their briefly portrayed romance gives a sense of magic to the goings on, as they are the first people to be positively influenced by Miss Buncle’s controversial work. Oglesby also appears as one of the strongest characters in the play as Miss Buncle’s only local friend, Sarah Walker.
Director Dorothy Milne’s cast is consistently solid and each actor makes changes in character and costume appear seamless. As they struggle with what to do about having their lives put forth for all the world to see, the citizens of Silverstream show themselves to be highly entertaining, even in their darkest moments and especially in their brightest.
From Windy City Times
September 30, 2015
By Mary Shen Barnidge
Once upon a time—1932, to be specific—in a quiet village located “a short train ride” from London, middle-aged spinster Barbara Buncle finds her income sharply reduced by falling interest rates. To stave off penury, she proposes to write a novel, basing its characters on her neighbors ( with all names changed, of course, including her own ) whom she portrays as they are—or in some cases, as they COULD be. The book is an immediate success, but then the citizens of Silverstream begin to recognize themselves in the outrageous populace of “Copperfield”—enraging some, but leading others to question their own lifestyles. By the time a sequel is announced, its publisher’s interest in the pseudonymous “John Smith” has extended beyond its lucrative sales figures.
Real-life author Dorothy Emily Stevenson shares with her fictional scribbler a candor inviting her personae to “see themselves as others see them” ( as Robert Burns famously remarked ), but also to nudge those in need of “waking up.” This may require third-party assistance: the cohabiting Ellen King and Angela Pretty may not REALLY be trouser-wearing lesbians exploring the fleshpots of Afghanistan like their literary counterparts, but when the doctor—who, like everybody else in Silverstream, has read the titillating roman Ã? clef—prescribes a therapeutic holiday in a warm and dry climate, the ladies are soon enjoying camel-back adventures in Egypt.
These are not Downton Abbey nostalgia-porn neurasthenics, however, nor are they mean-spirited Wodehouse-style caricatures ( though the frivolous Vivian Greensleeves declaring that she would marry “the devil himself” as long as he had lots of money comes close ). Small economies engendered by post-WWI depression—margarine instead of butter, the prospect of raising chickens at home—play as great a part in the eventual outcomes as the ease of eloping to Paris should the impulse to do so strike, keeping the action always accessible to our Yankee sensibilities.
Long-time Lifeline Theatre subscribers require no more recommendation for this production than its inclusion of Christina Calvit, Peter Greenberg and Jenifer Tyler, though newcomers may have to be told that Calvit’s page-to-stage adaptations have made her a five-time Jeff award-winner and that the duo of Greenberg and Tyler have been kindling slow-burning sparks since 2001 in literary romances ranging from Jane Austen to Dorothy Sayers. Add in a tech team savvy in small-space environments and a supporting cast of ensemble regulars in multiple roles, and the results are precisely the kind of engaging entertainment constituting this company’s hallmark for more than three decades.
From the Chicago Reader
September 22, 2015
By Suzanne Scanlon
Lifeline’s latest is adapted from D.E. Stevenson’s novel, set in World War II England, about a woman who under a male pen name writes a tell-all novel about the people in her small town, exposing much hypocrisy and pathos. It’s fun to watch the various characters fume over their exposure (and fun to imagine a world where people become so excited by books). There’s a larger story here, about the transformative power of art and the wisdom of the outsider, but much of the entertainment owes to Dorothy Milne’s staging and to Jenifer Tyler as Miss Buncle, whose transformation from mousy spinster to bold author is the real triumph, no matter the happily-ever-after ending.
From Splash Magazines
September 27, 2015
By Amy Munice
Before curtain time we are immediately taken in by the lace clad house frame tops that are the set crown of “Miss Buncle’s Book” in the icebox Lifeline Theatre that thankfully always provides snuggly blankets on each seat. (Scenic & Properties Designer Alan Donahue). Then with scones, tea and a gaggle of British accents humming from the 10-person cast, we find ourselves quickly ensconced in a small village, somewhere near London.
This is a very small village where everyone knows each other well–perhaps too well. Miss Buncle (Jenifer Tyler), lives here and had secretly taken pen to paper to write about her fellow villagers as a way to make ends meet during difficult economic times. Writing under a pseudonym, she tells it like it is. So much so, in fact, that when copies of her book begin to circulate in her town, some take offense while others take it more as a playbook of how to change their life going forward.
For two hours or so we are amused by this able cast creating their lampooned characters acting out all hell breaking loose as a result of “Miss Buncle’s Book” being unleashed on the town. (Peter Greenberg, Katharine Hildreth, Elise Kauzlaric, Kristina Loy, Martel Manning, Katie McLean Hainsworth, Tiffany Oglesby, Sean Sinitski, Jenifer Tyler, Chris Vizurraga.)
It’s lite, it’s fun, and especially so because you sense the cast is enjoying themselves quite a bit as they lay on the caricatures.
We are in on the secret that the outraged townsfolk can’t guess. Nobody in town even remotely considers mousy Miss Buncle as the perpetrator. She meanwhile acts out her Walter Mitty type fantasies of getting even or at least her due.
Get her due she does, and her man and her life, and ultimately the most fashionable and brave hat of them all. (Costume Designer Izumi Inaba).
Most of us have, like Miss Buncle, had a moment or two or more when we were invisible and underestimated. Remembering the time/s when you, like Miss Buncle, weren’t taken seriously — just a pretty face, or too old, or too young, or the wrong race, or the outsider of the school “in” crowd, etc. — will help you connect to this lite story.
From Chicago Theater Beat
Romantic and quirky, ‘Miss Buncle’ is a bemusing crowd-pleaser
September 24, 2015
By Clint May
Fittingly, Lifeline Theatre’s latest literary adaptation begins with an over-the-top homage to traditional English tea. All English civilization, it exhorts, rests on the edge of a china cup. Like the tea and scones that figure so prominently, Miss Buncle’s Book is a bit of old school traditional escapist fare with extra cream and two—if not three—sugars.
Written in the depths of The Great Depression (when audiences clamored even more than usual to escape reality), D.E. Stevenson sets her spinster eponym in the dire straits of losing the ‘dividends’ that support her meek rural lifestyle. After looking at other avenues, she leans into her greatest strength—quietly observing the quirks and foibles of her neighbors. She changes her town of Silverstream to Copperfield and pens a bestseller of thinly veiled but accurately sketched characters that is satire to the city dwellers and tawdry gossip to her fellow pastoralites.
When Miss Buncle (Jenifer Tyler) finds her ‘Disturber of the Peace’ (written under the nom de plume ‘John Smith’) in the hands of her neighbors, she quickly discovers that her takedown of their hubris-laden exteriors is creating a scandal for some and serving as inspiration for others. Art imitates life as life imitates art and back again, and the journey begins to transform Miss Buncle herself as her affection for her agent Mr. Abbot (Peter Greenberg) takes on a thrilling life of its own.
Christina Calvit’s adaptation is faithful, sometimes to a fault. The run time is padded with an exposition-heavy first act, mimicking the source’s multi-character viewpoints. Gratefully, the second act dispenses with world-building and starts delightfully paying off on the conflicts and love interests established. There’s a balance of energy and honesty that Director Dorothy Milne hasn’t found in every character, and it’s the women who truly shine while most of their male counterparts seem wooden by comparison. Katie McLean Hainsworth is hilarious as a burlesque girl turned socialite who leads the whodunit brigade to pillory John Smith. Kate Hildreth is pitch-perfect with a nose—and a performance—turned up to the sky. Camping and vamping to beat the band, Elise Kauzlaric leaves almost nothing of Donahue’s spartan set for the others to chew as a golddigger with her sights set on a wealthy young vicar (Chris Vizurraga).
At times the entirety gets borderline overwrought, but whenever the focus snaps back to Buncle and Abbot the show finds its heart and all is well again. Tyler and Greenberg create a lovely chemistry and have the appropriate balance of whimsy and realism (a scene at a movie theatre is particularly well-constructed). Miss Buncle’s earnestness and inability to see herself as she truly is shines through with Lifeline regular Tyler, who has an ability to deliver lovably dry wit with a body language reminiscent of Tina Fey.
Featherlight farce has always been welcome at Lifeline, and Miss Buncle’s Book proudly continues that tradition. The British obsession with appearances has always been a beloved and relatively easy target of satire. Miss Buncle’s Book falls into the same sub-genre as “Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day” or “Mrs Henderson Presents” with a coziness that reaches out to envelop the audience.
Now if they could only satisfy the desire for some real English-style tea that anyone who has viewed the show is sure to have upon exiting.
From The Fourth Walsh
September 22, 2015
By Katy Walsh
Fortunately for us, the Lifeline library is limitless and open to the public. Every season, they select a few books to showcase. Although they have an extensive collection of Austen and Bronte, Lifeline can’t be labeled as doing one type of book best. They do it all; adventures, fantasies, westerns, mysteries, romance and even sci-fi. And they often do it with comedy and music. And usually, it’s curl-up-in-the-chair-page-turning entertainment perfection. This time, the literary roll-out is a witty satire on the residents of a sleep English village.
Playwright Christina Calvit skillfully adapts the 1934 novel by D.E. Stevenson. Calvit pens the charming tale of a spinster writer who anonymously writes a tell-all book about her neighbors. When the community realizes the bestseller is about them, the amusement escalates as they go on a witch hunt to find the author. It’s ‘Housewives of the UK’ where the residents hide lies and insults under polite chit-chat. Calvit and Director Dorothy Milne work together to heighten the absurdity of each resident while maintaining the dry British humor. Some moments are so subtle and smart, the audience’s laughter is a couple beats behind.
Under Milne’s tight orchestration, the entire ensemble continue to pick-a-little-talk-a-little like an animated hen party. In their spirited discussions to discover who the author ‘John Smith’ is?, they regularly dismiss the mousy Jenifer Tyler (Miss Buncle). Tyler does an amazing job of being the main character and also being invisible. She seems to physically shrink into the background in contrast to the big personalities in the room. Her transformation throughout the play from nobody to somebody delights like a depression-era Cinderella story.
The town is filled with plenty of character. Elise Kauzlaric (Mrs. Greensleeves), Katherine Hildreth (Mrs. Carter) and the others bring out the quirky nature of small town life. Listening to them badmouth each other while delicately sipping tea and eating scones is hysterical. In particular, Katie McLean Hainsworth (Mrs. Featherstone Hogg) dominates as the self-appointed city matriarch. McLean Hainsworth is a blowhard with a sophisticated British accent. This combo, along with McLean Hainsworth’s razor sharp timing, delivers the punchline with an extra bloody oomph.
I’m already fond of Lifeline’s zestful Brit-Lit adaptations. This playful romp is more of an English com-rom. I thoroughly enjoyed the light-hearted buffoonery. Lifeline’s versatility as a storyteller is physically illustrated by Scenic Designer Alan Donahue. This time, Donahue dangles lacy curtain remnants from long poles. It gives the stage a neighborhood feel while reinforcing the secret lives and lies behind the sheers. It’s a simplistic look yet visually engaging. Everything about MISS BUNCLE’S BOOK makes it another collector’s edition in Lifeline’s repertoire.