Chester and the Unbearable Burden, Parts I and II
MuggleNet's full dramatic review.
by Eric Scull
There's a new boy wizard in town, folks! His name is Chester, and he wants to be a writer. But before he can impress the head of Dirkwood Academy's school newspaper, beautiful Charlie (Jacqueline Salamack) into letting him contribute, Chester's seedy past and unfortunate backstory come to rob him of what's left of his peace. The Dark Lord Molvak (Tyler Parker) has already tried to kill Chester once, when he was just a baby. But in all of the chaos that occurred that night, Molvak's special "ring of power" was fortunately misplaced. And Molvak was sent to the shadows out of which he has only recently been able to wander.
The play ("Chester and the Unbearable Burden, Parts I and II" at the Athenaeum Theater in Chicago, IL) opens on that fateful night, when the fate of a few were forever twined. Quickly it becomes clear that there are elements of both Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings in the story of Chester. It's a blend, I must say, that is done tastefully. Whether the characters are hybrids of the two series, carefully transported cousins of the ones we know and love, or complete originals, each member of this delightful ensemble plays them with gusto. The result is that Six Hours Short's inaugural play, a love letter to the fantasy book series, is lots of fun.
On the "Potter" side of the cast, there is Chester (Michael Blomquist), who despite a troubled past is just trying to pursue his normal everyday teenage dreams; Lillian (Jennifer Ducharme), super-smart (and good-looking) friend to Chester who has accompanied him in the past to the Spooksday Ball as "just-friends", but who often mothers him to her own dismay; and Dilfor (Ben Harpe), headmaster of Dirkwood, who knows smartly that it's not about WHAT you say, so much as HOW you say it - even if that involves erasing a memory or two and re-doing it once or twice to get it right.
Without (hopefully) saying too much, the character of Tansy (Kalina McCreery) is part Bellatrix, part Snape and it is Chester's family's House-Elf Gene (Justin Lance) who has recently escaped from magical prison and may have the answers that Chester seeks.
Equally important are Dirkwood Academy's three recent guests: Hamfast, bearer of Molvak's ring (portrayed by Kelsey Kinney doing her best Elijah Wood), the under-the-weather (and, at times) un-willing participant in the saving of the world. Also Hamfast's trusty traveling companion Sean (Wade Browning) whose stories of home and cheery disposition can brighten even the darkest hours. Finally, Thebook (Derrick Gaetke), an Elf like the kind from Ancient times, who knows more than he is saying about the events which transpire.
With a runtime of just 90 minutes, "Chester" does not overstay its welcome. Sure, the show is split into two parts, but this is done more for comedy (with a few relevant jabs made in their due places for prolonging the protagonists' agony...) and without an intermission. In fact, the show goes quicker with an excellent choice of (relevant and) popular music to play between the show's numerous (and bold) scene changes.
The Athenaeum Theater, where the show is held, is currently celebrating its 101st year as a vastly diverse performance house. "Chester" plays just down the Third floor corridor (coincidence?!), in a theater that is small enough to feel intimate, but large enough to hold a fun group in its audience.
Unsurprising to me after having seen the play is the close connection of the show's cast and crew to professional and/or sketch comedy. Show writer/director Ben Fort graduated from the Second City Writing Program in Chicago, and five of its principal cast have studied either at Second City or iO Theater for comedy. The rest of the cast are all exceptionally well-casted, bringing their characters to an enjoyable kind of life.
Not only does "Chester and the Unbearable Burden, Parts I and II" contain a great cast and several good laughs, but more than once while watching I found the story developing in an unexpected, "road-less-traveled" sort of way (for the better). Such was the case when Dilfor attempts to deal with the body count at Chester's parents house and there is a knock on the door. Or when Thebook, the wise Elder elf, surrenders his freedom, deciding that he would rather be bossed around by others, like a House-Elf, than make decisions for his own.
If you are in or around the Chicagoland area between now and March 4, and want to support an historic theater by seeing a fresh, new and humble Harry Potter parody, I recommend going to see "Chester and the Unbearable Burden, Parts I and II" - it may remind you (as it did me) why stories about heros are so entertaining.
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