Review: “Little Red Cyrano” (Red Theater Chicago)

Chorus and Benjamin Ponce/M. Freer Photography

We learn our first moral lessons from fairy tales. We learn not to talk to strangers. We learn not to lie. We learn that kindness is rewarded, and selfish actions are punished. We learn the rules of how civilized society is supposed to work.

But if you look at the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, the lessons presented are troubling. Red ends up eaten because of her own choices. She is definitely tricked by her wolf stalker, but she chooses to stray from the forest path on her own. She is responsible for providing the wolf an opportunity to attack her later on. In her case, punishment is inevitable and a warning: do not make unwise choices like this little girl.

Red Theater’s “Little Red Cyrano” is meant as a response to this cultural interpretation. Aaron Sawyer’s mash-up combines an examination of the fairy tale with contemporary topics and the dueling love interests of Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac.” In this telling, co-directed by Sawyer and actor Michael J. Stark (who plays Grandmother and Raganeau here), soldiers Christian (Dave Honigman) and Cyrano (Benjamin Ponce) flee to the forest in order to mount a resistance against the denounced New Patriots. They, like the audience, are thrust into a post-apocalyptic setting, where Chorus members (Brendan Connelly, McKenna Liesman, Les Rorick, Michele Stine, and Jenni M. Hadley, who provides underscoring by playing guitar) have become half-human/half-animals, due to nuclear warfare. Both men meet Little Red (Dari Simone), and fall instantly in love, concocting a scheme to win her heart amid the chaos.

Dari Simone/M. Freer Photography.

I have buired the lede a bit here. Red Theater has marketed this production as a showcase for Deaf talent, and indeed, it features three incredible performances by Deaf actors Stark, Connelly, and especially Simone. The trio bring energy and trenchant humor to their work, particularly when informing Ponce and Honigman that they are misusing or misinterpreting American Sign Language. Sign is used by all the actors onstage, hearing and Deaf alike, and the production has been billed as a union of diverse experiences. The best theatre grows from collaboration and a bringing together of multiple points of view. The strongest sections of “Little Red Cyrano” often involve moments of connection and communication, whether it’s the Chorus teaching ASL to audience members during the pre-show, or Simone teasing Ponce and Honigman. Stark is particularly fine as the depressed Raganeau, a man who longs for the wife who abandoned him; and as Grandmother, he commands others to do their leader’s bidding with little effort. Honigman is set a difficult task, as his Christian displays stilted expression in ASL, and often makes mistakes without acknowledging their impact; but such oblivious behavior becomes key to the character. Ponce fluidly moves between two languages, as Cyrano does in his own tragic tale, culminating in the wonderful balcony scene where Honigman hides his hands behind his back, and Ponce replaces his hands to sign for his romantic rival.

Still, I found myself wondering whether “Little Red Cyrano” makes a great showcase for Deaf talent, when the script mostly revolves around two hearing men who happen to use sign in this world. The Chorus and Raganeau/Grandmother, who use sign exclusively, disappear for the majority of the second act, so the audience winds up watching a lot of back and forth between Cyrano and Christian — using sign, yes, but not to communicate the Deaf experience. Simone might offer more perspective as Red, but the script only lets her in on the plot at its crisis point.

Dave Honigman and Michael J. Stark/M. Freer Photography.

Engagement with Deaf culture is further dulled by the larger point about entitlement Sawyer makes in his script. The deception carried out by the soldiers to win Simone’s heart lands powerfully at the play’s end, when she and Ponce argue in the belly of the wolf (delightfully created by the Chorus’s hands). But I do wonder if the slipperiness of language and its intention is completely realized here. Are Christian and Cyrano adopting ASL in good faith, or are they simply using it to win Little Red? Their manipulation of Red’s situation is chastized by the playwright, but what purpose does language serve in this production? Does it set us free and connect us, or is it not to be trusted, since it can be turned to selfish and deceitful purposes?

I am not sure what moral to take away from this production, except to say that it is not a celebration or a full critique of the fairy tale, Cyrano, and culture. Male entitlement is the blamed culprit in the end, but I struggle to find the roots of that in any of the stories Red Theater combines onstage. After the villains were punished at the play’s conclusion, I found myself asking whether they, or I, had learned a valuable lesson.

DIE RATING: d8 — “Not Bad, Not Great”

TEN-WORD SUMMARY: Deaf talent overshadowed by concept-heavy script and language question.

Show: “Little Red Cyrano”

Company: Red Theater Chicago

Venue: Strawdog Theatre Company (1802 W Berenice Ave)