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Foibles and Morals Abound in All-Ages Musical Based on Aesop's Fables

Four of Aesop' fables will be brought to life this spring in "How Can You Run with a Shell on Your Back?"

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March 12, 2009 | by Judy Moore
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Four of the best-loved classic fables attributed to Aesop will be brought to life this spring during the Theatre and Interpretation Center of Northwestern University's stage production of an all-ages musical created by two Northwestern University alumni. The production is presented in partnership with the Chicago Humanities Festival.

"How Can You Run with a Shell on Your Back?" is a high-energy, one-act play for families that features music, lyrics and book by Michael Mahler and Alan Schmuckler. The featured fables include: "The Tortoise and the Hare," "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," "Androcles and the Lion" and "The Ant and the Grasshopper." Composer Dan Green, a recent Northwestern graduate, is the show's musical director.

Performances will be held at 7 p.m. Friday, April 10; 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, April 11 and 2 p.m. Sunday, April 12, at the Ethel M. Barber Theater, 30 Arts Circle Drive, on the University's Evanston campus. Following its mid-April run at the Barber Theater, the musical will tour Evanston area schools during a five-week period this spring. The production will return to the Evanston campus May 15 and 16 when additional performances will be held at the Josephine Louis Theater, 20 Arts Circle Drive, as part of the Stages, Sights and Sounds 2009 Festival, presented by the Chicago Humanities Festival.

A children's tale of joy and goodwill, the production follows six students and a substitute teacher who combine forces to turn an after-school detention in a library into the madcap world of make-believe. The merriment starts when the children stumble upon a book of Aesop's fables and begin to act them out.

"Aesop was born a slave sometime in the 6th century B.C., lived in ancient Greece and gained his freedom with his stories, his intelligence and his wit," said Rives Collins, associate professor of theater, and chair of Northwestern's theatre department, who is directing the production. "His fables use animals to point out human foibles in an inoffensive way. The reason they have remained timeless and are enjoyed by audiences of all ages is that in addition to being filled with folk wisdom, they also are very funny."

The show's six 9-year-old characters and the teacher will be portrayed by Northwestern University undergraduate students in their late teens and early 20s. The characters include: "Howie," a newcomer to the school and a misfit; "Riley," a super-achiever and teacher's pet; "Jackson," one of the school's sports stars, but also a bit of a bully; "Savannah" the most popular and fashion-conscious girl in class; "Daisy," who dresses in black and sits at the back of class and is known for playing war craft and doom games; and "Ari," the class clown who tries too hard to be amusing.

"What saves the day is Ms. Sopperstein, a young and magical substitute teacher -- much like a hip Mary Poppins -- who lets the kids play make-believe in the library," said Collins. "The kind of teacher every child should have at least once in their life, she facilities their play-acting with her carpetbag full of props that serve as a catalyst for Aesop's stories."

In place of custom-made costumes, the student actors will fashion their "storytelling" attire from everyday objects that children might use when they are playing dress-up. The "props" will suggest each character the student is portraying. For instance, during a re-enactment of "Androcles and the Lion," Savannah transforms herself into a lion by draping a "scrunchy" scarf around her neck as her mane, slipping socks on both hands for paws, and tying a rope with tassels around her waist as a tail. Jackson becomes a king by flinging a beach towel across his shoulders for a robe.

When the five other students dress an unwilling Howie as the slow-moving tortoise in "The Tortoise and the Hare," he can hardly move because he is wearing a baseball catcher's chest protector, a waist basket on one foot and a lunch box on the other, a scooter helmet, and an oversized backpack. Seeing how uncomfortable the boy is, the substitute wisely takes the race in a new direction. Finally, it's the things inside a person, such as kindness, empathy and compassion, that allow the tortoise to compete in a race against the speedier hare.

The 75-minute show's sophisticated musical score includes jazz rhythms borrowed from legendary jazz musician Dave Brubeck. Preview samples from two of the show's songs, "How Can You Run with a Shell on Your Back?" and "Stuck in the Library," can be heard online at http://www.communication.northwestern.edu./tic/performances/shell.php.

"This is a musical families will enjoy watching together, written by two of the most talented and dynamic young composers working today," said Collins. "It is a charming show that presents big ideas in a way that is easy for young audiences to understand."

Single tickets for all April performance dates of "How Can You Run with a Shell on Your Back?" are $20 for the general public; $18 for seniors aged 65 and older, Northwestern faculty and staff and area educators and administrators; and $10 for children and full-time students.

Tickets may be purchased by phone through the Theatre and Interpretation Center Box Office at (847) 491-7282 or purchased at the door. Tickets also are on sale through the Theatre and Interpretation Center Box Office or at www.tic.northwestern.edu.

"How Can You Run with a Shell on Your Back?" will be touring Evanston-area schools from April 22 to May 29. For information on available tour dates and pricing, contact Jean Deven at (847) 491-5146 or e-mail j-deven@northwestern.edu.
Topics: University