"The Sparrow"

 

With ‘The Sparrow,’ Chicago’s House Theater conjures an uninhibited, youthful vision of play making.

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By Christine Dolen

Like many theater artists before them, the young men and women who formed The House Theatre of Chicago a decade ago created a company in order to make plays their way.

That imaginary fourth wall separating actors and audiences? Erase it. Staging the same old plays and musicals? Forget that. Ignoring the visual techniques of movies and television? How stupid.

Thanks to the passion, vision and creative talents of the House mates, the award-winning company has made an innovative mark on the Second City’s thriving theater scene — particularly with the 2007 play The Sparrow.

Created by artistic director Nathan Allen along with actor-playwrights Jake Minton and Chris Matthews, The Sparrow proved so popular in Chicago that it moved twice, first to the Steppenwolf Garage (yes, that Steppenwolf, the template for so many edgy young theater companies), then on to a run at the city’s Apollo Theater as the first local production presented by Broadway in Chicago. Now The Sparrow has flown south to find yet another life in the Carnival Studio Theater at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

The play, which opens Thursday and runs through May 1, is a prime example of the House aesthetic. Through words, music, movement, projections and stylized theatrical techniques, it spins a tale that draws on archetypes and myths in a fresh way.

The play is a kind of high-school sci-fi mystery set in a small Illinois town, a place whose residents are bound by loss even as they try to find their way back to hope.

The story of Emily Book, a high-school senior who comes home 10 years after an awful accident claimed the lives of her second-grade classmates, moved The Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones (an astute critic not given to hyperbole) to call The Sparrow one of the best original theater pieces he’d ever seen in Chicago.

“You can smell and taste something new, something passionate, something original, something strong, something fresh, something true and, above all, something young,” Jones wrote.

Ah, “young.” That’s a word that makes most artistic directors’ hearts beat faster, given the graying of most theater audiences. And though people of all ages have responded to The Sparrow, the show’s audience skews enviably young.

“Without sounding like an arrogant punk, we created The House because we were bored with the state of most theater we were seeing,” Matthews says. “We were raised on [ Back to the Future director] Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg. We thought there’s no reason theater can’t be exciting and imaginative.”

 

A broad mix

Movies, music, television, comic books, literature, classic theater — they all get dumped into House’s creative Cuisinart.

“We’re some of the best remixers in the business,” Allen says during a mid-February visit to Miami, a trip designed to charge up some 200 high-school and college students the Arsht has recruited to review and help market The Sparrow to their peers.

The image-inspired idea for the play came to Allen as he was leaving a Chicago comic-book store. As he walked down the street, he suddenly thought of a flying cheerleader. This was, he says, before the TV series Heroes (with its superpower-possessing cheerleader) had debuted.

Allen enlisted Minton and Matthews, whose work he had directed, to create a script.

“Nate is great as a story editor and script editor,” Matthews says. “He brought us the story. He had certain images and characters in his brain. He wanted to explore notions of forgiveness, which is at the center of his artistic pursuits.”
Stylistically, Minton says, the two went for earnestness.

“One thing that turns us off is stuff that attempts to attract young people by being hip and cynical,” he says. “We want to see theater that makes us cry and gives us catharsis. And we try to write that.”

Indeed, emotionally uniting actors and audiences is what House is all about.

“We’re not all that excited about the fourth wall. We were annoyed at paying $25 to $50 to sit in a dark room and be ignored,” Matthews says. “Or, as actors, to be told, ‘All those people? Pretend they’re not there.’ That’s bulls---. We’re all in the same room to tell a story together.”

 

Brainy Emily

House company member Carolyn Defrin is the solemn center of The Sparrow as Emily, the brainy girl who went away after the accident and came back changed. Quiet, insecure, on edge, Emily is different in other ways from the bubbly girls and boisterous boys at Spring Farm High. As the story unfolds, we learn she can fly, use telekinesis to move objects, even make a stilled heart begin to beat again.

The Miami run will be Defrin’s fourth time playing the mysterious Emily. She and her fellow actors are all four years older than they were when The Sparrow was created, but Defrin thinks the passage of time has helped deepen the work.

“Emily is a teenaged girl, and I am not,” she says. “But we’ve all gained four years of perspective and new information as adults. That keeps it fresh. At one of our first rehearsals back, we realized we’re more in-between now – not teens, but not the age of the parents. We’re not playing at being kids, which we might have done subconsciously four years ago.”

Arsht executive vice president Scott Shiller saw The Sparrow twice when it was running at Chicago’s Apollo and fell hard for the show and The House’s style.

“It’s a sophisticated, very visual way of storytelling, with music, movement, language and props,” Shiller says. “My hope is that more of our Broadway-series subscribers will come to the Carnival as well, that in The Sparrow they’ll see quality work of an intimate nature. … And our goal is to lay the groundwork for future two-way collaborations between The House and South Florida actors and playwrights.”

Allen is all for future House/Arsht partnerships. Expanding his company’s reach is just one facet of his hopes for the evolution of a troupe that started when most of its members were so young.

“I want to get our own building, and the company has to go Equity so our mentors can come and play with us,” he says. “I want to be stable and be a home for our artists to come back to. And, certainly, the art evolves. We can’t get by on our cuteness any more.”

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