In Little Red Cyrano, Red Theater has created one of the bravest retellings of both Little Red Riding Hood and Cyrano de Bergerac ever to grace the stage—and one of the funniest. From the blurring of boundaries between stage and audience to the dextrous blending of spoken and signed language to the interrogation of agency and narrative power, this show leaves no convention unshaken.
Red Theater Makes the Audience Part of the Show
The play begins with a lone actor on stage bashfully noticing the theater-goers in the house. Gradually, other actors (adorably outfitted as woodland creatures by costume designer Stefanie Johnsen) meander into the theater and then into the seats, greeting and even cuddling up with people. Audience involvement, it seems, is the name of the game.
Throughout the evening, screens on either side of the stage provide supertitles. Not only do these monitors offer translation for anyone unable to understand either spoken English or American Sign Language, they offer helpful instructions at various points explaining little things the audience should do to keep the show on track. A request for viewers to do a certain sign themselves here, a bit of meta-commentary on an ad libbed part of the show there, and Red Theater has set up a uniquely engaging experience.
Speaking with Voices, Hands, and Whole Bodies
Particularly impressive is the level of integration and versatility in different methods of communication. Shows combining vocal speech and ASL have been around for decades, but the virtuosity of Stage Manager/ASL Translation Team Mary Kate Ashe’s work deserves special note. The contrast between the fumbling, wincingly literal gestures of Christian (the goofy yet diabolical Dave Honigman) and the fluid, poetic signing of Little Red (Dari Simone—passionate, fierce, and genuine) and Cyrano (Benjamin Ponce in an uncommonly vulnerable portrayal of the role) could not be more pronounced.
Red Theater goes still further, though. Along with the helpful supertitles and the multifaceted mix of speech and sign, every aspect of stagecraft is attuned to advance the story and its message. The performers fight, dance, mime, tumble, and at one point turn into a gigantic, terrifying wolf. Michael Commendatore’s projections transform Kevin Rolfs' versatile set into one scene after another. And Johnsen’s costumes both allow actors to play multiple roles (and not just Cyrano pretending to be Christian!) and show the transformation of characters over the course of the play.
Classic Stories Blossom into New Truths
Perhaps it is fitting that co-directors Aaron Sawyer and Michael J. Stark should take so many creative risks with this production. Most of which, it bears saying, pay off handsomely. The play itself (also written by Sawyer) does not mash up Little Red Riding Hood and Cyrano de Bergerac as introduce the two stories and allow them to bleed into each other. A kind of narrative symbiosis, as it were.
From this seed of an idea grows a forest of a show in which familiar characters take on new shape and personality. Christian is no longer merely a good-natured, ineloquent romantic, but a vain, glib opportunist, or worse. Little Red is a young woman helping her grandmother, yes. But rather than carrying a basket of goodies, she is a leading officer in commander Grandmother’s (also Stark) guerrilla resistance against the fascist New Patriot State, and the Roxane of the piece to boot.
The greatest difference of all, though is in Cyrano himself. Charming, clever, brave, masterful in voice and sign, he quickly wins the friendship of Little Red and the sympathy of the audience. Remarkably for this age-old story, though, Cyrano is held accountable for his part in facilitating Christian’s deception and all its terrible consequences. His panache, rather than being his cardinal virtue, is his tragic flaw. Thus does Red Theater subvert expectations while taking old tales in new directions.
Photos by M. Freer Photography.
This production has closed. For information on future Red Theater productions please visit the Red Theater website.
About the Author:
Harold Jaffe is a poet, playwright, amateur trapeze artist, freelance greeting card designer, and now, unexpectedly, a theater critic. He earned a BS in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Olin College and since returning to Chicago has worked extensively with Cave Painting Theater Company and the late great Oracle Productions. His chapbook Perpetual Emotion Machine is now available at Women & Children First, and his reviews of shows around town are available right here.