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Amelia Earhart: Jungle Princess
The New Colony

Also see John's review of Turn of the Century

Amelia Earhart: Jungle Princess
Evan Linder, Nicole Pellegrino
and Benjamin Oyama

Interest in the fate of the pioneering aviatrix Amelia Earhart, who vanished over the Pacific Ocean in 1937 while attempting to circumnavigate the globe, must be one of those things that skips a generation. I've always been familiar with the name, but never known much about her—as if by the time I came of age, her legend was already so well known to the previous generation there was no need to explain her any further. The artists of the fledgling New Colony Theatre, including writer James Asmus, have been fascinated enough to write a fantasy about what really might have happened to Ms. Earhart, believed to have crashed onto a South Pacific island.

The New Colony ensemble includes writer Asmus and Amelia director Andrew Hobgood, who last year together wrote book and lyrics for Love is Dead: A Necromantic Musical. That show ran weekends for nearly a year at the Annoyance Theatre before moving on to the New York International Fringe Festival where it won the award for best music and lyrics. It was an improv-inspired show that reached a little higher and succeeded in becoming an Off-Broadway style musical. Like Love is Dead, Amelia Earhart, aspires to be more than we'd expect. It begins as a clever parody of 1930s styled adventure films, a la King Kong or Tarzan, but soon enough reveals itself as a more serious-minded piece of social criticism with an ambitious narrative structure.

The action opens in the headquarters of the Altamont Corporation, some sort of evil mega-company that favors American participation in World War II because they'll be able to bring women into the work force for lower pay than the men who went off to fight were earning, and thus increase corporate profits. They also, as a publicity stunt, send off teams of explorers to scour the South Pacific to find the missing Ms. Earhart. Scenes alternate between the Altamont headquarters in the big city and an unexplored jungle island in the Pacific, where a trio of hapless explorers is about to stumble on the missing Ms. Earhart.

At that point, it's a funny send-up of the adventure-film genre. Daniel Jessup is perfect as the brainy and nerdy Professor Pin, researching the island's botany while pilot/guide Gerald Gallagher )played with much swagger and bravado by Josh Odor) and the na´ve and wholesome Iowa farm boy Calvin Schultz (given an endearing aw-shucks charm by Kevin Stangler) search for Ms. Earhart. As the titular character, Nicole Pellegrino has less stage time than we might like, and creates a sort of reverse and opposite gender Tarzan. Formerly a member of civilized society, she's become a semi-wild thing and has lost much of her ability to speak English.

Before too long, it's revealed that the jungle story occurs before the scenes at Altamont, though they move along on parallel tracks. As the explorers find, rescue and are rescued by Ms. Earhart in the jungle story, they find the corporate bigwigs at Altamont to be even more dangerous than the savages of the jungle. In another bit of theatricality, the corporate cannibals are played by the same actors as the island savages. We first see the henchmen and the diabolical titan Altamont (played by Michael Peters, whose booming voice and confident presence easily convince us he's a powerful man much older than the actor) in business suits. In their first few entrances as the savages, they doff a few items of clothing ... shoes, sock, shirts (while keeping their suit jackets on), but as the play progresses, their wardrobe more and more resembles that of jungle savages than big city businessmen. The point is obvious—the big city can be as dangerous as the jungle and the rich and powerful as evil as the island savages.

It's a clever device, but not exactly a new message and, as developed here, probably not deserving eighty minutes of stage time. Still, the show may be worthwhile as a chance to keep tabs on the young Asmus-Hobgood team. If Amelia Earhart isn't yet as solid a base hit as Love is Dead, it's still a wholly original, ambitious effort that puts their talents on a new and larger canvas. Love is Dead, limited by the Annoyance's tiny stage, had a fairly two-dimensional staging. Here, the storefront National Pastime Theater seems luxuriously large by comparison, and director Hobgood effectively moves his cast around the multi-level and cleverly suggestive jungle set designed by Dean Adams and Nicholas Hernon. Hobgood and his cast capture the perfect two-dimensional tones required of these pulpy characters and display some impressive dance-inspired movement. While Love is Dead was mostly all verbal and aural, Jungle Princess shows Hobgood's ability to put together a visually rich production.

Amelia Earhart: Jungle Princess will run through November 2, 2008. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 7:00 p.m. at the National Pastime Theater, 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago. "Show passes," which allow the buyer to attend as many performances as they like during the run for one price, are on sale at www.thenewcolony.org or by calling 1-800-838-3006.


Photo: Alain Minotti

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-- John Olson



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