I have never read a novel from fantasy writer Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. But after seeing Lifeline Theatre's zealous, laugh-out-loud world premiere adaptation of Pratchett's 2003 novel "Monstrous Regiment," I'm inclined to. Director Kevin Theis' endlessly engaging production is that good.
Part of the appeal has to do with the witty script by Chris Hainsworth. The Glendale Heights native captures the oddball charm of Pratchett's fictional world -- a flat universe resting on the back of four elephants who stand on the shell of a giant turtle swimming through space -- and the quirky, solidly crafted characters who inhabit it.
"Monstrous Regiment"★ ★ ★ ½
Location: Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave., Chicago, (773) 761-4477 or lifelinetheatre.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 4 p.m. Sunday through July 20. No performance July 4.
Running time: Two hours, 30 minutes with intermission
Parking: Some paid street parking available. Free parking at a lot at the northeast corner of Morse and Ravenswood avenues. Free shuttle bus service from the lot to the theater before and after the show.
Rating: For adults; contains adult language and humor
The success of "Monstrous Regiment" also results from the artful balance Theis and his superb cast achieve between satire and surreality. It's droll but not too dry, silly but not over-the-top. The actors' deadpan delivery, like their timing, is on target. And the visual puns -- such as a hunchback's shifting hump -- are subtle but effective.
Taking its title from John Knox's 16th-century tirade against female sovereigns ("The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women"), in which he argues gender makes women unsuitable leaders, the play satirizes gender roles. It also serves as a caustic rebuke of war, blind patriotism and persistent stupidity -- all of which make this "Regiment" resonant.
The action unfolds in Borogravia, a country whose citizens have long forgotten -- if they ever knew -- the reasons for their perpetual feuds with their neighbors on the Disc.
Facing defeat and with their ranks depleted, army recruiters seek out young soldiers willing to enlist in Borogravia's latest struggle against neighboring Zlobenia. Among them is Polly Perks (Sarah Price, a winningly winsome waif), who cuts her hair, dons a pair of breeches, changes her name to Oliver and joins the army to find her wayward brother (also a recruit) and bring him home. She's assigned to a ragtag regiment, whose recruits are as green as she is. Among them is aristocratic vampire Maladict (Michaela Petro, all refined menace), who swore off blood in favor of coffee; Igor (great work from Katie McLean Hainsworth), a hunchback medic with a talent for stitching together bodies; and the slightly dim troll Carborundum (the affable, amusing Justine C. Turner), who enlists under the army's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. This motley band of "brothers" includes Melissa Engle's pious Wazzer, a Joan of Arc-like character who hears the voice of Borogravia's revered Duchess, a sovereign who hasn't been seen in public for 30 years and may be dead. That's a minor concern, however, in a world where something becomes real if enough people believe it.
Rounding out the regiment dubbed monstrous is the self-contained Lofty (Mandy Walsh) and the defiant Tonker (passionately played by Kim Boler), who expresses in simple terms the frustration of the powerless when she exclaims: "There are rules. They can't do whatever they want just because they can."
Leading the untrained, poorly outfitted regiment is the gruff, battle-hardened, unfailingly decent Sgt. Jackrum, played with equal parts compassion and ruthlessness by Christopher M. Walsh. Walsh brings real pathos. Also on hand is Jackrum's weaselly corporal Strappi (John Ferrick) and their commanding officer, the dapper, befuddled Lt. Blouse (the hilarious Robert Kauzlaric), a dandy eager for glory.
We follow the misadventures of this untrained, poorly equipped but perpetually plucky unit from skirmish to skirmish, from defeat to victory to disappointment -- when they realize that misogyny trumps all, even valor.
At two and a half hours including intermission, the play is overly long and needs trimming. But that's a minor point in what is a major delight from a company renowned for its page-to-stage translations.
As for me, I owe Lifeline a "thank you" not just for a rollicking evening of theater, but for inspiring my next book club suggestion.