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Theatre Sat May 14 2011

Watership Down Shines on Stage at Lifeline

WatershipDown3_web.jpgI was in sixth grade. The demanding teacher of my first honest-to-goodness honors class handed my classmates and me copies of a 500-page behemoth novel with a fuzzy rabbit on the cover. I was in disbelief. 500 pages! About bunnies? Somehow I was simultaneously too old and too young for this. But over a decade later, I find that Richard Adams' Watership Down has a special, sentimental place in my heart.

Lifeline, a theater that specializes in world-premiere adaptations of both adults' and children's books, has chosen to stage this strange classic that blurs the distinction between the two demographics. I'd seen them do some amazing, surprising things with their diminutive stage before, but a freaky and rather serious epic about the rabbit universe was hard to picture. I naively imagined there would be furry costumes; there were none. I thought there would be some kids in the audience; not a one, and the show didn't seem written with a youth audience in mind. I hoped against hope that, like the film version, it might include a song by Art Garfunkel; nope.

Like the book, the subject matter of Lifeline's new production, adapted by John Hildreth, entrances the audience only gradually. At first, the mere notion of a bunny society with prophets and presidents is just too ridiculous to endure, but the complex characters, dramatic story, and surprising sense of humor eventually enchant. And for those who, like myself, read the books as kids, there's the nostalgia factor. I couldn't get enough of the brash seagull, Kehaar, impeccably rendered by Jesse Manson, whose cursing reminded me of how my best friend highlighted every "damn" and "hell" the bird uttered, folding her book so it naturally fell open to his first appearance.

Enjoying Watership Down means giving yourself over to the absurd premise that a prescient rabbit would lead his friends on an epic journey to freedom, fleeing from the ravages of man and meeting other rabbits along the way -- death cult rabbits, sheltered ignorant rabbits, fascist rabbits with a caste system -- in their quest for personal fulfillment. If you can manage to do that, the brilliance of a stage version with humans in regular clothing will become unmistakably clear. All the allegory that Adams put into his novel is much more obvious, and the moral reads no longer as "Humans, stop ruining the lives of rabbits!" but instead, "Humans, stop ruining the lives of each other!...and rabbits." What message could be more timely, or timeless?

Watership Down is directed by Katie McLean Hainsworth and runs through June 19 at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave. Tickets range from $27-35; student, senior, and rush tickets are also available. Call 773-761-4477 or visit the theater's website.

 
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By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
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Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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