By Ian Rigg
The Hypocrites’ Cinderella at the Theater of Potatoes is a marvelous, madcap kaleidoscope.
An adaptation of an adaptation (Pauline Viardot-Garcia’s Cendrillion), this world-premiere remains wholly original. A salon of long-dead writers and composers convene outside of time and convention to tell a tale of Cinderella, that includes no prince. Afterall, why should her tale be bound to a man? The phenomenal production promises it won’t be something audiences have seen before.
From the moment audiences walk in, (through a rack of vibrant costumes) they are blown away by color. A Beatles album cover has exploded in the Den Theater, and brilliant scenic designer Regina Garcia has set the charge. Vivid yellow and plum purple and chartreuse green and seemingly every color on the visual spectrum have been put to spectacular use in an incredible set that encompasses the entire space (even the support pillars have been painted). Audiences sit in tiers, and a wheelchair accessible ramp has been installed in its midst so that actors can whiz about.
Jared Gooding’s lighting design is exquisite, emphasizing the vibrant colors of the set and evoking mirth, solitude and ambience as the quirky script calls for it. Props master Mealah Heidenreich has procured a plethora of potatoes and an old oven to put them in. Alison Siple’s astounding costumes continue to lean into the color theory, detailed 19th century garb meets Sgt. Pepper’s. All aspects work in tandem to exude a sense of childlike whimsy and wonder, and it’s completely captivating. If the visuals are something never seen before, the audio elements are like nothing audiences have ever heard.
Ray Nardelli’s sound design pops as much as the visuals do. It guarantees every nuance of the sound is heard crisply in the intimate space. Andra Velis Simon, adaptor and music director, is a visionary. She has taken 19th century compositions and catapulted them into the modern day in quirky arrangements that feel titanic, never twee. She has coached her performers incredibly well, cultivating vocal brilliance and devising an actor/musician score that employs each performer’s’ strengths and likely pushed them to learn something new with aplomb.
Director Sean Graney’s vision is magnificent. Through blocking, conception and casting, he gleefully breaks invisible rules that should’ve been smashed long ago. His casting is all-inclusive; having partnered with the Chicago Inclusion Project, the cast consists entirely of people of color. The Hypocrites realize that more interesting and compelling stories are told when people of all walks of life get to tell them, so no heed is paid to disabilities or gender identities; Graney has simply put fantastic artists onstage, and mirthful magnificence ensues.
As Pauline Viardot-Garcia herself, Leslie Ann Sheppard is a remarkable ringleader to this charming circus. With a lovely voice and sophisticated and sentimental command of the stage, she lovingly orchestrates her peers and invites audiences into her theater, to which the price of admission is a single potato.
Dana Omar is a sheer delight as Fanny Mendelssohn, who plays the composer in the play within a play. The source of her hilarity is her unbridled earnesty. Of equal skill with flute and mandolin, she walks boldly through a darkened stage, music lighting her way.
In place of a wicked stepmother is a Baron who is anything but benevolent, and in that place is Joel Rodriguez. Thoroughly commanding and thoroughly comedic, he gleefully plays an odious man who adopted Cinderella for a tax break and symbolizes much of the wickedness of modern capitalism.
Railing against capitalist convention is likely-to-be-fan-favorite Gay Glenn as George Sands an outspoken feminist and socialist in this feminist, socialist adaptation. With every strum of her banjo, she endears audiences’ heartstrings, routinely leading a chant of “Community! Equality! Party of the people!” Aja Wiltshire excels as Pauline’s daughter Louise, tasked to play the wicked sister Adelind. A good guitarist and admirable mezzo-soprano (about which a hilarious joke is made), she manages to keep her character wry to temper the overwhelming orthophonic joy of her costars.
Elle Walker is an utter riot as Mergatroid, a daft and delightful diva. When not playing piano or trombone, she is playing comedy with exceptional timing, with a nuanced naivete that yields some of the show’s biggest laughs. Amanda Raquel Martinez simply shines as the titular role. This Cinderella is a hauntingly beautiful singer, a stunning soprano with guitar chops who greets each audience member with a genuine glee. In a show all about joies de vivre, she is the living embodiment of joy.
After spending just 90 minutes in a mirthful microcosm, audiences will be rejuvenated by the refreshing rapture of The Hypocrites’ Cinderella at the Theater of Potatoes. Patrons should stay afterwards for a cup of potato soup. It’s a treat as offbeat and delicious as the performance that preceded it.
The Hypocrites present “Cinderella at the Theater of Potatoes” through January 8, 2017, at The Den Theatre, 1333 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.