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Songs of Themselves: Reviewing ‘The Lilliput Troupe’ and ‘Fight or Flight’

Zach Barr, Theater Columnist

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This was a good week for student theater.

Vertigo, the first StuCo board to mount a full show this quarter, presented Communication senior Gaby FeBland’s new play “The Lilliput Troupe” this past weekend. With two of its five performances completed, the show was already generating fantastic word-of-mouth reviews before I saw it. Not to say that Vertigo doesn’t typically produce good work — indeed, they have yet to produce a true dud this year.

What had less of a guarantee of quality was Communication sophomore Casey Reed’s new song cycle, “Fight or Flight,” a Struble project. Anyone who knows me will know that I don’t love song cycles, since they are so often an excuse for the composer to just put their songbook onstage (with the fabulous I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change being a notable exception). I trusted Reed enough, so I went into his song cycle with high hopes.

I almost didn’t get in to see “Lilliput.” I arrived thirty minutes early to its Saturday 11 p.m. performance, after seeing “Fight or Flight” at 8 p.m., and found the line out of Shanley Pavilion stretching almost all the way down its front path. Immediately upon entering I marveled at Communication junior Melanie Vitaterna’s marvelous set. I always love to see Shanley completely transformed, and I couldn’t help but step on a few leaves as I moved to my seat.

The story concerns the true tale of seven Romanian dwarf performers, the Ovitzes, who traveled around Europe in the 1940s. The mysterious Doctor Mengele gives them shelter from the inevitable threat of Nazis, under the guise of “researching dwarfism” while performing “experiments” on them. FeBland’s play has the Ovitzes performing their own story, metatheatrically pulling similarities between their escape from Mengele and the fairy tale Snow White that they often performed. As they perform, we also begin to sense their own personalities as performers in what they include or omit from the two narratives. So, really, three stories.

Still, it’s fewer than the sixteen or more stories told in “Fight or Flight.” Reed’s music was performed by Communication sophomore Nathan Villa, Communication freshman Leah Shannon Platt, Communication freshman Lindsay Maron and Bienen freshman Justin Dresner, accompanied by Reed and Weinberg sophomore Stephen Antonoplis on percussion. Together, they perform 21 original songs, all written on the subject of “adrenaline.” These take many forms, including college acceptance, getting caught in the rain, telling bar stories and, of course, falling in love. Though there is no linear story, the collected stories do form a nice arc, leading into each other in a way that makes it clear they were written to be performed together, not just written “on a theme.”

I’m not going to write that either “The Lilliput Troupe” or “Fight or Flight” is perfect. I mean, they’re both very, very good and I only found errors when I actually looked for them. The former does have some moments that become confusing or even seem random when the three stories begin converging. The latter has a skewed balance of fighting to flighting, about a 3:1 ratio, which celebrates facing adversity over showing our moments of weakness. But neither issue dooms the show.

The reason I can’t harp too much on either is that, in both cases, the execution is perfect. Every member of either cast acts their roles with the perfection I would reserve for the Wirtz Center. The costumes, lighting, sets, sounds, musicians and all other aspects of both productions merge seamlessly and perfectly encapsulate exactly what needs to be represented. Communication junior Alex Benjamin’s perfect direction of “Lilliput” always manages to keep focus, even when every character needs to be seen, and Communication sophomore Chris Anselmo uses only four chairs to make any and all possible settings for Reed’s varied and complex songs.

All this goes toward making, in both cases, a very personal and emotionally-driven evening in either theater. You feel like these stories are not only about real people, but about these real people, the ones right in front of you, acting their hearts out.

Email: zacharybarr2017@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @AdmiralZachBarr

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