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The New Season: Adaptable Lifeline Theatre reshapes three novels into stage premieres

Submitted by on Aug 22, 2012 – 11:03 pm

Ninth in a series of season previews: Wilkie Collins’ 19th century “sensation” novel “The Woman in White” begins a slate of world premieres that end in mythic China. The season opens Sept. 7.

By Lawrence B. Johnson

In a sense, Lifeline Theatre’s 30th anniversary season will be a year like any other year. The difference with Lifeline is that business as usual means a full slate of world premieres.

Lifeline’s life-blood is adapting classic stories not written as plays – typically novels – into stage works. And the prospect for this season is a threesome of mysteries that cut a swath from the 19th century British “sensation” novel to a modern work that draws on mythic ancient China for its adventure.

“We are ensemble driven,” says Lifeline artistic director Dorothy Milne. “We’re a company of actors, writers, adaptors, designers – and we develop our season programing as a group. It’s not a solitary vision. We don’t all have the same taste, but we do all share a great passion, so we end up with a diversity of programing that reflects our range of interests.” Further, if need be, the company can also hire a literary fiction book editor and their likes for completing the adaptations.

Over three decades, that has meant 100 world premiere literary adaptations into stage works plus 13 original plays amid a catalog of some 150 productions.

Characteristically, this season opens with a complicated stretch: Robert Kauzlaric’s adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ serialized 1859 novel “The Woman in White,” an early example of a Victorian counter-culture genre that quickly acquired the moniker of “sensation” novel. What proved so sensational – indeed shocking – was the association of unseemly matters like adultery, insanity, seduction and murder with ordinary folks in British society.

The literary critics were duly appalled by such immodest tales. The public reacted by snapping up the books in unprecedented quantities.

The 2012-13 season in brief:

  • “The Woman in White” by Wilkie Collins, adapted for the stage by Robert Kauzlaric (World premiere, Sept. 7-Oct. 28): Trapped in a loveless marriage, the young English heiress Laura Fairlie finds herself immured in an asylum by her plotting husband. But her half-sister and her true love, Walter Hartright, are in a race against time and odds to save her. Collins’ rather Gothic tale begins with a tantalizing ambiguity between identities of a young woman who has been committed to an asylum and Laura, whose resemblance to that poor creature ends up putting her and her fortune in the teeth of peril. Manipulating her misery is the man she’s been constrained to marry, but whose only interest in her is her inheritance. “It’s filled with dramatic machinations and pot-boiler twists and turns that make it loads of fun,” says Milne. “Robert has drawn out the narrative structure of the novel’s epistolary form so that it really works as a play.”
  • “The City & The City” by China Miéville, adapted for the stage by Christopher M. Walsh (World premiere, Feb. 15-April 7, 2013): It’s a crime thriller with an intriguing wrinkle – the location is two cities that occupy the same space but function as separate cultures. And while the murder under investigation has occurred in one city, the body is discovered in the other city. To solve the crime, the ace detective must cross the cultural divide in this fantastical place of superimposed metropolises that do not acknowledge each other. The web of anxiety is thickened by the ambitions of powerful corporate and political factions. “In many ways it’s a classic detective story involving a hard-boiled detective at the top of his field,” says Milne, who will direct the play. “It’s an alien setting – a made-up place in Eastern Europe – but the tropes are very Sam Spadish, very noir detective. It’s going to be super fun.”
  • “Bridge of Birds” by Barry Hughart, adapted for the stage by Chris Hainsworth (World premiere, May 31-July 21): Hughart subtitled this perilous adventure story “A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was.” In that mythic setting, the children of a village are dying of a mysterious plague, and it falls to one young villager to venture forth to find the cure – in the company of an elderly sage “with a slight flaw in his character.” They discover that the affliction is not exactly a plague, but it’s deadly nonetheless and they still must fetch the cure – a mission beset by monsters, mazes and the complication of an ancient theft. “For our 30th anniversary season we wanted to do some impossible epic on our small stage,” says Milne with a laugh. “There will be sword fights, dancing, gymnastics – all done by a company of six. It’s an homage to story-telling.”

Getting there:

Lifeline Theatre is located at 6912 N. Glenwood Ave. Founded in 1982 by five graduates of Northwestern University, Lifeline Lifeline moved into its permanent home in Rogers Park, a converted Commonwealth Edison substation, in 1985. The facility includes a 99-seat theater, rehearsal and office space, a scene shop, and costume, prop, and scenery storage.

Along with its regular series of plays, Lifeline also offers three productions for children – starting this season with Doreen Cronin’s book “Duck for President,” adapted by James E. Grote with music and lyrics by George Howe. When Duck gets himself elected to run the farm, he’s on the way to political success on a national scale, with Cow, Hen and Pig rooting in his corner. The play runs Oct. 20-Nov. 25.

The second children’s show will be “The Mystery of the Pirate Ghost,” adapted by Scott T. Barsotti from the book by Geoffrey Hayes. It’s about a theft that seems to implicate a pirate ghost as the perpetrator. When a boy and his uncle set out to catch the culprit, they discover they need help from a troubled outsider who has some lessons to learn about honesty and hard work. It’s ghosts ahoy Jan. 12-Feb. 17, 2013.

Hans Christian Andersen’s witty story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” becomes “The Emperor’s Groovy New Clothes” in Lifeline’s final children’s show, adapted by Frances Limoncelli with music and lyrics by George Howe. A proud fashion plate, the Emperor lets vanity get the best of him when a con man sells him an expensive, uh, birthday suit. His highness’ close brush with exposure runs March 23-April 28, 2013.

“We’re very proud of our children’s program,” says Milne. “We want to develop a young audience, to engage children and interest them in reading.”

As for grappling with those epic novels that have made Lifeline’s reputation, Milne says the ensemble wouldn’t back down from anything that caught their collective fancy.

“We’re not daunted by big stories,” she says. “We just make them workable on our stage. The movie only did part of ‘Doctor Zhivago,’ too!”

Related Links:

Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Maggie Scrantom plays the title role in Lifeline Theatre’s season opening production of “The Woman in White.” (Photo by Suzanne Plunkett) Descending: Novelist Wilkie Collins. Book covers for Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman in White,” China Miéville’s “The City & The City” and Barry Hughart’s “Bridge of Birds.” Lifeline’s home in Rogers Park. Artistic director Dorothy Milne. Below: Scene from Lifeline’s 2008 production of “The Mark of Zorro.” Scene from the 2010 production of “Neverwhere.” Scene from the 2007 production of “The Island of Dr. Moreau.”


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