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updated: 6/12/2014 6:12 AM

Lifeline's comic fantasy a 'Monstrous' delight

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  • The band of "brothers" who make of Lifeline Theatre's "Monstrous Regiment" includes: Katie McLean Hainsworth, front row left, and Sarah Price; Michaela Petro, middle row; and Melissa Engle, top row left; Mandy Walsh, top row center; and Kim Boler. Chris Hainsworth's adaptation of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel runs through July 20.

      The band of "brothers" who make of Lifeline Theatre's "Monstrous Regiment" includes: Katie McLean Hainsworth, front row left, and Sarah Price; Michaela Petro, middle row; and Melissa Engle, top row left; Mandy Walsh, top row center; and Kim Boler. Chris Hainsworth's adaptation of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel runs through July 20.
    courtesy of Kelsey Jorissen

  • Sgt. Jackrum (Christopher M. Walsh), right, and Cpl. Strappi (John Ferrick) recruit a young Oliver (in reality, Sarah Price's Polly) into the hapless Borogravian army in "Monstrous Regiment," Lifeline Theatre's stage adaptation of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel.

      Sgt. Jackrum (Christopher M. Walsh), right, and Cpl. Strappi (John Ferrick) recruit a young Oliver (in reality, Sarah Price's Polly) into the hapless Borogravian army in "Monstrous Regiment," Lifeline Theatre's stage adaptation of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel.
    courtesy of Kelsey Jorissen

  • Robert Kauzlaric's dandy commanding officer Lt. Blouse offers his suggestions to skeptical Sgt. Jackrum (Christopher M. Walsh), left, and Private Oliver (Sarah Price) in "Monstrous Regiment." Kevin Theis directs the world premiere of this adaptation of Terry Pratchett's 2003 fantasy novel.

      Robert Kauzlaric's dandy commanding officer Lt. Blouse offers his suggestions to skeptical Sgt. Jackrum (Christopher M. Walsh), left, and Private Oliver (Sarah Price) in "Monstrous Regiment." Kevin Theis directs the world premiere of this adaptation of Terry Pratchett's 2003 fantasy novel.
    courtesy of Kelsey Jorissen

 
 

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.

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.

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