Recommended *** Unspeakable Theatre’s production of “The American Revolution” purports to tell the story of the American War of Independence for children with seven actors, 20 square feet of space, suspended two feet of the ground, in 50 minutes. Timing aside (opening night ran well over 50 minutes), they mount a very successful production. The things which one would anticipate being a problem are not—the space never seems claustrophobic, incredibly the blocking is graceful, and as usual in Chicago theatre, the actors are able to go from one character to another with dexterity and skill. Jeffrey Freelon’s performances both as George Washington and his slave are particularly haunting and affecting, and Vanessa S. Valliere projects an aloof, but comic haughtiness as the governor of Virginia which is truly hilarious.
The stories told are familiar and not so familiar. As children, we learned the familiar lessons: Bunker Hill, Concord, Lexington, Paul Revere’s Ride, and the Boston Tea Party. Some are true, some probably have highly apocryphal elements, but they are all part of our shared national narrative, and all things that young Americans should learn and know. The unfamiliar stories are all true: Abagail Adam’s letters are incredible pieces of epistolary literature; Benjamin Franklin did insist that the Declaration of Independence not sound overtly religious, and Thomas Jefferson’s colleague’s omitted his denunciation of slavery from the Declaration’s final draft.
The first category of stories will help teach children what they need to know about The American Revolution to be literate citizens. The second category of stories may teach children what they don’t need to know, but should learn at some point in their life although such stories often require a more detailed knowledge of American History to process than many school-aged children are likely to have. Hence, this category of stories and their execution will be probably appeal more to the adults in the audience.
The portion of the play that does fall down is the portrayal of the George III (Aaron Rustebakke) and Louis XVI (Kathleen Hoil). The small acting space, the company’s use of physical theatre which emphasizes the body and employs the techniques of mine and puppetry, and young audience mean that some level of caricature is inevitable, but this really goes over the top, and is part of our national myth that needs to be put to rest. There was nothing inherently ridiculous to contemporaries about Constitutional and Absolutist monarchies. They were tried and true methods of governing, Democratic Republicanism was not, and these kings were not ridiculous to their contemporaries. Their supporters believed in their power to either rule or govern the state, and their opponents took them seriously enough to execute Louis XVI, and replace George III with his son during his bout of insanity. I was also a little alarmed that they employed effeminacy to make both kings ridiculous. This is not only inaccurate, but it could also be offensive to serious, intelligent, and conscientious people who have such mannerisms or to people with non-traditional sexual orientations. However, these shortcomings are somewhat mitigated by the simple, flexible, and convincing period costumes (Alice Tavener) and the music, a compilation of near contemporary British and American patriotic hymns, which create a realistic ambience that offsets the problem of the caricatures nicely.
Overall, “The American Revolution” is an enjoyable night, and can teach children and adults about the American Revolution (I did not know about the literary or historical importance of Abigail Adams letters, and immediately looked them up after the show), but might appeal more to adults than children—particularly if the show continues to run over 50 minutes.
Unspeakable Theatre’s production is playing at the Vittum Theatre which is located at 1012 N. Noble Street. It runs through November 3oth with performances Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday’s at 4:30 pm with no performance on Saturday, November 22nd. Regular Tickets are $17. Tickets for Children 14 and under are $12. They can be purchased at www.adventurestage.com or by calling the box office at 773-342-4141.