The cast of The Sparrow
(© The House Theatre of Chicago)
The cast of The Sparrow
(© The House Theatre of Chicago)
Any theater company with two hits running at the same time must be doing something right. Take the House Theatre of Chicago, which is continuing its winning streak by opening its 2007-2008 season with the highly-praised The Magnificents, and remounting its much-lauded hit from last season, The Sparrow, for an open-ended run at the 450-seat Apollo Theater in a commercially-backed production.

Founded just five years ago by graduates of Southern Methodist University, "The House" (as its known in the Windy City) is dedicated to "amazing feats of storytelling," to quote their mission statement. The company has admirably fulfilled that mission with adventurous narrative works that have dazzled critics and audiences, including original explorations of the Peter Pan and Oz myths and a three-part epic about a time-traveling detective who lands in Japanese samurai, Wild West, and 1930's gangster eras. Last year, The House approached the Hatfield-McCoy feud with Shakespeare's history plays as their model.

Show after show, The House does what most theater managements only dream about: It attracts dedicated, loyal, and vociferous twentysomethings who bring their friends and buy logoed T-shirts. These theatergoers are consistently thrilled by the sheer physicality, exuberance, and theatrical imagination of the young ensemble, who double and triple as writers, directors, musicians, designers, and managers.

The House often tackles dark and serious subject matter -- be it blood feud, death, or existential angst -- as viewed through the eyes of adolescent or young adult characters. Such is the case with The Sparrow, written by ensemble members Jake Minton Chris Mathews, and Nathan Allen. The play tells the tale of a 1950s small-town teenage girl with special powers, who is the sole survivor of a terrible school bus crash she may have caused. But The Sparrow has compassion that raises it far above its occasional Carrie-like moments in favor of parents, teachers, and students capable of forgiveness, healing, and wonder. It also pulses with joyful and unexpected theatricality, such as when the heroine inadvertently and hilariously animates the fetal pigs in a biology dissection class!

The $300,000 commercial remount is being presented by Chicago-based Broadway producers Libby Adler Mages and Tony D'Angelo, with a number of New York investors among their angels. Moreover, this production of The Sparrow is the first time that Broadway In Chicago, the Downtown presenter owned by the Nederlander Organization and Live Entertainment, has partnered with an Off-Loop show, suggesting that New York could be the next step for this show.

Meanwhile, The House has launched its fifth regular season at its 175-seat home base with The Magnificents, written by and featuring company member Dennis Watkins. It's a warm-hearted and intimate show of consistent small pleasures, although minus the electrifying dazzle of some House productions.

The Magnificents is a magic show dedicated by Watkins -- a third generation magician-- to his late mother and grandfather. However, it's not a slick stage magician's act, but a clown show with a narrative line and relatively little dialogue. Watkins plays a magician whose wife (Marika Mashburn) is his assistant. Old and childless, they take in a boy (Tommy Rapley) who may be an orphan or a runaway. The boy has a natural gift for magic, and the old man teaches the boy as much as he can before he dies; eventually, the boy completes the master's final trick, the famous orange-lemon-egg-canary illusion. Indeed, the show chiefly features sleight-of-hand magic rather than large-scale illusions -- such as changing ladies into tigers -- and whether working with cards, scarves, birds or balls, Watkins is nimble and charming.

The piece is also carried forward and expanded by three classic red-nose clowns as supernumeraries, magic assistants, and stagehands; the delightfully ingratiating Michael E. Smith, Carolyn Defrin and Stephen Taylor provide a Cirque de Soleil feeling with pre-show audience interaction that begins at the lobby ticket line. Original music by The House's superb resident composer, Kevin O'Donnell, initially adds to the Cirque feel but passes through other modalities as the show progresses. Director Molly Brennan wisely doesn't pump up the show to a size it can't support and she deftly balances comedy against pathos.