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‘Gather: Surprising Stories & Other Mischief’: Theater Review


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Improv runs deep in the DNA of Chicago’s illustrious theater tradition, stemming mainly from the work of Viola Spolin, an acting pioneer who developed a method known as “theater games.” Her son, Paul Sills, adapted her games and co-founded the venerable Second City Theater Company in 1959. His show, Story Theater, consisting of games based on fairy tales, folktales and myth; it won two Tony Awards in 1971. That landmark production is echoed in Gather: Surprising Stories & Other Mischief, a new show with an ensemble cast led by the incomparable John C. Reilly in a brisk and entertaining 90 minutes of shape-shifting, romance, merriment, murder and mortality.

Gather marks a reunion between Reilly and his longtime friend and mentor, Patrick Murphy, his first acting teacher at Chicago’s DePaul University. What the two have conjured is a bit of antic fun and music in the intimate attic upstairs, the 99-seat Carrie Hamilton Theater at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Seldom accused of grandstanding, Reilly has always been an actor who fits neatly into an ensemble. If he has a trademark, it is that he gives freely to a scene and his fellow cast, which he does in Gather, blending with the group and assuming centerstage only when called upon. As elsewhere in his career, his work here slips seamlessly through a range of attitudes, from the bumbling burglar outwitted by barnyard animals in the The Bremen Town Musicians (also in Story Theater) to a king smitten by a mysterious maiden he finds in the forest to a murderous sorcerer in a variation on Bluebeard.

Reilly was a Tony nominee for True West and an Oscar nominee for Chicago, in which he delivered a memorable rendition of “Mr. Cellophane.” It should therefore come as little surprise that he lends a warm tenor to the interstitials in songs like “Nature Boy” and tunes put to the poetry of Robert Burns.

Grimm Brothers stories like The Singing Bone, Brother and Sister and The Bremen Town Musicians are told with characters narrating their adventures, maintaining a storybook framework. Props are kept to a minimum, with castmembers forming a magic tree or a pit of snakes as needed and assuming multiple roles throughout.

Michael Dunn makes an ass worthy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream‘s Bottom in The Bremen Town Musicians, and Mary Grill delivers an almost unsettling incarnation of a rooster. Alicia Adams becomes an alluring but arsonous fowl in Fitcher’s Feathered Bird, avenging her sisters played by Madeline Wager and Grill. Max Kleinman’s crafty blacksmith forestalls death in The Devil, Death and Simon Green, while Brother and Sister features Chris Schultz as a cartoonishly evil stepmother to Amie Farrell, a little girl lost in the woods with her brother, Larry Bates, who is turned into a fawn.

Musical instruments and microphones line the wings, where offstage actors contribute to a lively soundtrack of beasts in the woods, crows in the trees, a babbling brook or whatever audio a tale requires. Versatile one-man band Logan Hone incorporates various musical styles ranging from folk to Prokofiev.

There’s no more primitive form of entertainment than gathering around a fire to tell stories. To witness a medium stripped to its basics is to see it tested at a rudimentary level. That it remains compelling with minimal use of lights, costumes, music and effects makes Gather evidence of theater’s vitality, both gratifying and stirring in a primal way.

Venue: Pasadena Playhouse, Carrie Hamilton Theater, Pasadena
Cast: Alicia Adams, Larry Bates, Michael Dunn, Amie Farrell, Mary Grill, Max Kleinman, Chris Schultz, John C. Reilly, Madeline Wager
Director: Patrick Murphy
Creators: Patrick Murphy, John C. Reilly
Lighting designer: Jared A. Sayeg
Costume designer: Ann Closs Farley
Music: Logan Hone

Presented by Pasadena Playhouse, John C. Reilly

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