Chicago’s Lifeline Theatre has been adapting books into plays and musicals for a long time. My first view of their work was an adaptation of The Left Hand of Darkness, BVC’s own Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic novel. After that, The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, a novel by Daniel Pinkwater. I especially love their adaptations of Miss Buncle’s Book (D.E. Stevenson), Pride and Prejudice, Lucia, and of course their Georgette Heyer adaptations–so far, Pistols for Two, The Talisman Ring, and Cotillion. (They also killed Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment, and produced some really stunning new plays, my favorite being Miss Holmes by Christopher M. Walsh.)
Christina Calvit does an astonishing job on the Heyer, never more so than with Sylvester, a much-beloved and monster-long Regency romance. Dorothy Milne provides wack-crazy directing and staging to cram this ridiculously fat novel into an evening of delight. This fourth Lifeline Heyer adaptation finds every rising line and turning point in the story and makes it fabulous and funny and farcical, cuts out the lengthy bits in between—you’re a Heyer fan, you know how big this book is!—and leaves you satisfied that you’ve got the whole story.
I’ve seen Sylvester twice in previews and once after official opening. I’m planning to go again.
I’ll get this out of the way right now: Lifeline ensemble member Peter Greenberg, who absolutely slew his roles as Jack Westruther (Cotillion) and Sir Tristram Shield (The Talisman Ring), and Lord Peter Wimsey (Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, swoonsville!) does not play Sylvester. Okay, he may be fifty, and Sylvester is supposed to be twenty-eight. But my heart misgave me when I heard this young whippersnapper Andrés Enriquez would be taking on a role I had counted on for Greenberg.
And then I saw Enriquez do it. Yep, he’ll do nicely. He has Sylvester’s stiff courtesy and even stiffer lovemaking down pat. Can’t wait to see it again a few more times. (When Lifeline does something this well, I like to wallow. Saw their adaptation of Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment five times. Six, if you count the reading presentation.)
Things you will not be able to visualize no matter how I try to describe them:
- Everyone using Snakes & Ladders—actual ladders and actual slides with lovely snakes painted on them—and big Draw One cards—to fill in the massive cuts in the text, which are necessary to cram twenty pounds of book into a two hour play.
- All the characters wear high-top sneakers, however formal their garb above the waist. Sir Nugent Fotherby’s tassles (applied to his sneakers) totally steal the show.
- The fateful dance at Lady Castlereagh’s ball, during which Sylvester revenges himself on Phoebe in public, is a freaking hilarious combination of slightly Latin-beat dance music, perfectly Regency-stiff dance style, and some occasional wack-ass shimmies and shakes that work, omigod, because they’re performed deadpan.
- The actors use big rubber exercise balls with handles as substitutes for horses in the equestrian conversations. You can’t imagine how Sylvester and his cousin Georgie Newbury carry off looking graceful and well-mounted and Phoebe looks as if she is in fact riding a “flat-sided screw.”
- Three of the main characters, Sylvester, Phobe, and Tom Orde, are performed by actors of color.
- The child Edmund Rayne and the puppy Chien are performed by various members of the ensemble with manifest reluctance. It’s a riot to watch as each one in turn receives the black spot (Edmund’s cap, or the puppy’s ears) and glumly kneels to deliver the role.
- As always at Lifeline, they execute technical miracles in a space the size of a two-car garage with lots of head room, and the special effects are always convincing, effective, and yet of necessity bloody primitive.
- Most of all, the romance works. I loved watching Enriquez’ Sylvester slowly coming apart and fighting it every inch of the way. Samantha Newcomb’s Phoebe is a delicious combination of hoyden and timid stepdaughter, which isn’t easy to pull off. Their chemistry is understated but you get terrific UST and a victory kiss! (Lifeline tends to be stingy with kisses, but not this time.)
Big huge kudos to Milne, Calvit, their tech crew, and a very fine cast.
So yeah, I’m going back at least twice more.
Maybe I’ll see you there, if you happen to be in Chicago between now and October 29!