It’s difficult to turn your life– and your pain– into art. Too often it ends up being therapy– good for you, but not necessarily good for the audience. But All the World’s a Stage, the new collaborative show from Quest Theatre Ensemble, manages to highlight personal stories in a unique, engaging fashion. Here the actors display thoughtfulness and attention to detail only possible in a carefully crafted performance, not a twelve-step meeting.
While this is a musical, don’t expect Broadway-style numbers; here the songs are secondary to the individual stories. It’s not flashy or glitzy; the performances take place at the Blue Theater, in a high school basement. Instead, All the World’s a Stage is community theater at its best– solely created by the ensemble, free for the audience. Conceived, written, and rehearsed by the seven performers in merely six weeks, the show is a triumph.
The Shakespearean title refers to the show’s main theme: the commonality in our personal experiences. The play is comprised of many individual stories loosely based around the timeline of a life, starting from birth and ending beyond death. Each vignette is performed by the actor who wrote it, interspersed with group songs that provide a breather amongst the sometimes heavy content matter. Given that all the actors play versions of themselves, it’s remarkable that the show has as much cohesion as it does. You can tell the cast–and their artistic director, Andrew Park– meticulously contemplated how each piece fits into the whole.
The show reminds me of live literature, since each one-man vignette could be compared to the stories told at Essay Fiesta or the Moth, though with a stronger emphasis on performance. Though the stories are true, each performer has clearly spent a lot of time figuring out how to really act them, through facial expressions, vocal emphasis, and gestures. In one story in the “Aging” section, Vincent Lonergan describes the anxiety of crossing the street, as his legs grow slower. He huffs and puffs across the stage as the background screen flashes the crosswalk’s light counting down. When he reaches the other side, we all clap and cheer. This is the beauty of the show: Lonergan the actor shows the vulnerability of Lonergan the person, and through the performance he reflects our own worries and fears.
In several different pieces Kent Joseph unveils the story of his youngest son’s birth, childhood, and, in a knockout performance, his early death. This thread, which bookends the entire show, left hardly a dry eye in the house. As I sat, hands gripping each other, I pondered what keeps this show from devolving into Chicken Soup for the Soul-esque bathos. One thing is the genuine empathy the performers have for each other– which shows itself not in the center stage antics, but in the moments after each performer finished his or her piece, emotionally exhausted. After Darcie Bender-Hubber talks about her miscarriage, Kiki Ciesielski holds her on the side of the stage. After Joseph finishes his tale about his son, Hannah Starr holds his hand and leaned her head against his shoulder. The performers span decades, genders, sexual orientations– and yet their group dynamic is visceral. An ensemble-based performance lives or dies based on the group’s chemistry, and here we can visibly see the care they have for each other, a care that flows out into the audience.
The second thing that elevates the show is the humor that peppers all the performances. Starr’s comedic chops particularly shine in a brutally funny piece about battling alcoholism. Every piece proves the point that we have to be able to laugh at ourselves to survive.
The show’s only downside is that it runs a little long– almost two and a half hours with a ten minute intermission. The younger children at the show got a little wriggly, though the free popcorn helped some. Some of the early childhood pieces, which lack the depth and nuance of the later ones, could use some cutting down. However, this is a small drawback to an overarchingly innovative musical. The show is unique in that it can never be performed again–at least not in its current iteration. However, given its ingenuity, I can see other groups using the idea and adapting the format to fit their own performers.
With a mix of pep and poignancy, Quest Theatre Ensemble’s players have succeeded in turning their stories into drama without veering into melodrama. All the World’s a Stage is as entertaining as it is empathetic. You can tell the ensemble created this show joyfully, and that its creation was a journey. Luckily, they’re inviting us along.
Catch All the World’s a Stage at the Blue Theatre, 1609 W. Gregory Ave., through March 20. Admission is free, but reservations are highly recommended. Reserve seats by phone at 312-458-0895 or online at www.questensemble.org.
Photos provided by Quest Theatre Ensemble.