By Ian Rigg
“Without a hurt, the heart is hollow.”
When you’re young, the world is an endless mirror of whimsy and wonder. When you’re older it seems almost irreparably broken, warped and shattered. You try to grasp for that faded glory of first love, that childlike cosmology. You try to reconcile this new view with the halcyon haze of life before. But instead, you learn to find beauty in brokenness. In putting the pieces back together, you’re now fuller. The cracks get repaired with gold and become the more precious because of it.
The seminal musical, The Fantasticks, the long-lived off-Broadway remix of Pirandello, Brecht, Schoolhouse Rock, Shel Silverstein, Sesame Street and Dante’s Inferno, remains an elegantly sparse treatise on these themes, even if a few elements can make a 2020 audience wince.
Tom Jones’ poetic work plays like a children’s book that only adults and rather precocious kids truly grasp the tragedy of. That’s just the subtle significance that Citadel Theatre’s new production is going for. Under Director Pat Murphy, the madcap and absurdist parable unfolds under this didactic and manic mindframe.
Set Designer Eric Luchen turns the Citadel space into the set of a children’s TV show; the artificial but warm and emotional design calls to mind a bizarro-world Barney, with weathered toy chests and gazebo and astroturf just the right viridian shade between vibrant and sickly.
Prop Designer Donna Price provides many a toy in her toybox to play with. Costume Designer Emily Brink channels an idyllic mid-century suburbia by way of a Wes Anderson film. Lighting designer Diane Fairchild and Co-Lighting Designer Marissa Geocaris sublimely set the stage for melancholic magic.
The iconic songs are a massive reason the show endures, and boy do they sound phenomenal when channeled by Music Director Aaron Kaplan and played by the truly magical musical ensemble of Michael Maganuco on harp, Talar Khosdeghian and Kailey Rockwell on piano and
Eric von Holst on bass.
With the creative circle set, the actors cast the incantation.
Without saying a single word, the incredibly interesting Kristina Meima is a consistent,
committed force in the show who invests an elegantly deadpan air to dividing and facilitating
the characters – plus she’s a pitch perfect catcher and tosser.
Bill Chamberlain and John B. Boss are delightful actors, whose (spoiler alert?) campy feud is a
front for their two children to foster false rebellion and of course fall in love. Henry Michael Odum and John Benischek are a riot as Henry and Mortimer, giving well-crafted turns as senile thespians hired to play brigands.
Jonah Cochin plays young lover Matt with a boisterous, boyish bluster that gradually gives way
to a broken weariness. With the voice of a meadow lark and the fractured persona of a delusional princess, it’s a joy to watch Aurora Penepacker’s evocative eyes gradually uncloud as Luisa learns love and loss. The two lean into the heightened world of the show, rueful in its innocence and merry in its melancholy, in order to craft a compelling young love in all its effortless earnesty and trying impermanence.
As narrator El Gallo, Brian Hupp is a multi-layered enigma. In the meta-show within a show, he nails a begrudging detachment as an actor who doesn’t want to be here, but then he reveals a deeper nature with sinister and sympathetic shades. With a masterfully cultured baritone, he manages to look simultaneously young and rakish and ancient and profound, a man you could never hope to trust and yet would give your life. His best line-reading may be his final one: “You must always leave the wall.”
Without tyranny, there’s no freedom. Without ignorance, there’s no learning. And without love,
there’s really no life at all.
At its core, Citadel’s charming and cutting production of The Fantasticks cherishes this simplicity. Sure, nothing gold can stay – but that doesn’t mean it can’t come back around more valuable. For deep in December, our hearts will remember…and follow.
Citadel Theatre’s “The Fantasticks” plays through March 8 at 300 South Waukegan Road, Lake
Forest. For tickets and more information, visit here. Photos by North Shore Camera Club.