Shakespeare for Chicago kids: Lions in Illyria marvels

Few classic staged comedies are as pitch-perfect as “The Bard’s Twelfth Night or What You Will.” With its themes of mistaken identities, pigeonholed gender roles, and debaucherous love affairs, however, it’s not exactly the first Shakespearean show you plan on taking your children to – right? The newest production at Lifeline Theatre might just change that. “Lions in Illyria” (part of their popular KidSeries and penned by Robert Kauzlaric), is a marvelous take on a beloved show which features animals, gentle humor and a surprising commitment to more of the original story than I’d thought possible.

Violet and her twin brother Sebastian – both lions – are separated in a storm at sea and land independently of each other on the shores of Illyria. Fearing for her own safety, Violet assumes the guise of a man and calls herself Cesario, secures herself a job in the court of Duke Orsino (a peacock), and attempts to deliver his declarations of love to the long-mourning Lady Olivia (a gazelle), who in turn finds the messenger rather attractive – and then it gets really interesting.

This show (under the direction of Amanda Delheimer Dimond) is one of the smartest adaptations of Shakespeare for kids that I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. What could easily have fallen into overly simplistic explanations or cloying storytelling was a strong play-within-a-play with a few notable moments of dramatic license. (Sir Toby Belch, Twelfth Night’s raging drunkard, is a warthog with a hard addiction to candy in this version. Which actually makes complete sense.) The color and gender-blind casting of twins and sea captains alike was refreshing to me – and completely unnoticeable to my three- and five-year-olds. On opening weekend, understudy Ryan Stajmiger joined hardworking ensemble members Mykele Callicut, Brandi Lee and Kate McDermott, and I’ll say this much: if this was a typical understudy performance then Lions in Illyria is one of the tightest productions anywhere in Chicago, regardless of intended demographic.

It’s not hard to make children’s theatre funny. It’s also not hard to make theatre that teaches a lesson. But a successful combination of both, that touches lightly – yet effectively – on subjects of bullying, addictive behavior and being true to yourself while trying to love someone else, adds up to a show that kids and adults alike will adore.

After the 11 a.m. show and prior to the 1 p.m. performance, make sure to take advantage of Lifelife’s Stories Come Alive! Hour, which gets kids up and off their feet – and straight into the tale.

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