Red Orchid Theater raises curtain on all-girls “Iliad”

A young girl lunges and thrusts an invisible sword into her opponent and hovers triumphantly as her victim crumples to the floor. Thus ends the scene as girls, age 8-13, rehearse for “The Iliad,” a drama characterized by betrayal, rage and vengeance, premiering in November at A Red Orchid Theatre’s Youth Ensemble.

If you go

Moon Theater

  • 1531 N. Wells Ave., Chicago
  • Nov. 17-Dec. 19
  • Thursday-Saturday 8 p.m.; Sunday 3
  • Thursday , Friday-Sunday
  • (312) 943-8722

It might seem odd to use an entire cast of young girls for a drama filled with battle scenes, dead bodies and adult male roles, but Director Steve Wilson and Craig Wright, the screenwriter who adapted the script specifically for the girls, were going for the unexpected.

“These young girls will never get to play roles like this. They’ll never get these meaty roles to sink their teeth in,” Wilson says. “And how interesting to use women in a play with all male roles where the women only show up as trophies, to empower women.”

The girls screamed and writhed through the rest of the reading and acting exercises. Witnessing the young actors dying to join the dead bodies strewn on the makeshift stage is a chilling experience. The believability of their performance doesn’t reveal their inexperience. Although many of the older girls have been with the Youth Ensemble for three years since its inception, this is their first drama, and the girls are anything but intimidated.

“It’s teaching me to be more of a serious actress,” says Kara Ryan, 13.

In the world of acting, kids are usually confined to lighthearted scripts and productions, but Wilson says he believes in the emotional capacity and capabilities of children. His goal is to provide them with an opportunity to have a voice not only as females, but also as children and as young actors.

“They want it,” Wilson says. “I’ve posed the challenge and they want to see it through. They want to prove to the world that they can do this.”

Wilson sees every difficulty as a teaching opportunity, and the lessons the kids receive expand beyond the realm of theater. Whether it be learning to focus within their craft or understanding themselves and their reactions, such as anger or grief, these are lessons only provided by an emotionally charged drama like “The Iliad.”

A question-and-answer session after the play ensures the audience experiences some educational benefits, too. And the experts who will be answering the questions? The kids, of course.

“What better than kids teaching these other kids?” Wilson says. “That’s exciting to me.”

The script reading comes to an end, and Wilson announces they’ll spend the last hour doing acting exercises.

All of the girls scream in delight before launching into a dagger-throwing exercise. Daggers, giggles and all, the show must, and will, go on.

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