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Chicago dell'Arte's The Literati Learns Us Some Books

By Julienne Bilker in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 27, 2010 9:40PM

Nick Freed, Ned Record, Derek Jarvis

We'll admit it. There are several pieces of classic literature with which we're familiar only because they were adapted into musicals. There are many more with which we're entirely unfamiliar due to our relatively stringent undergraduate guidelines on avoiding classes whose reading lists included books over 300 pages. Lucky for us, The Literati, presented by new-to-our-radar troupe Chicago dell'Arte, has distilled twenty-five of the world's most masterful masterpieces into short, hilarious adaptations/bastardizations, and is ready to perform any five of them at the roll of a die. Striking the right balance between clever and ridiculous, the show is both surprisingly educational and consistently entertaining.

Although The Literati's three actors/co-playwrights (Derek Jarvis, Nick Freed and Ned Record) often give the impression that they're wingin' it, it's clear that they're well-rehearsed and comfortable with both the stories they present and the personas they inhabit. The interaction between the guys is both an integral part of the show's success and the link to the company's Commedia inspiration: Derek is most concerned with adherence to the text, as well as intellectual parallels that can be drawn between, say, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and Cold War Era Russia. Ned, however, prefers a more open, artistic approach to adaptation - for example, in the Saturday morning cartoon/Captain Planet-inspired "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea," his Captain Nemo speaks with a spot-on Sean Connery accent, because the cartoon-version Captain Nemo looked like Sean Connery (despite being Indian in the book). Obviously.

Last but not least, there's Nick, who makes up for being a little slow by being cute - and a Freed, as in major donor The Freed Foundation. As the emcee/frustrated babysitter of two hyperactive, overgrown children, Derek attempts to keep things civilized despite being constantly undermined - when he asks why "Little Women" was placed in the "Foreign Classics" category, Nick replies, "What's more foreign to you than women?" Kudos to co-directors Rebecca Butler and Jessica Record for wrangling this crew.

Our performance happened to feature a few stories we'd actually read ("Huck Finn" and "Little Women") and one we knew even before seeing its (incredibly terrible) 1997 musical incarnation ("The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"), but prior knowledge is definitely not a prerequisite. In fact, the trio played to our frame of reference with some well-placed cracks at the Chicago theatre scene, which, to us, made up for whatever we might've missed in the "real" stories. That being said, we didn't think much was lost in translation, particularly in the second act, which consisted of one "bonus" epic: James Joyce's "Ulysses." Although every retelling in the performance begins with the first line of the story and ends with the last, "Ulysses" warrants special treatment: because the closing line of the book is insanely long - according to Wikipedia, it contains 12,931 words - it is read throughout the entire adaptation, rotated among the three actors between their turns as characters in the novel. Every one of the 18 chapters is introduced with a short explanation of its title - each is a reference to Homer's "Odyssey" - followed by a minute-long reenactment, all while the monumental final sentence is spewed at Micro-Machine-Man-speed in the background. The whole thing takes about 20 minutes, and it's incredibly impressive.

The Literati closes this weekend - and is performed in a teeny tiny theatre - so grab your tickets now. There's a 96% chance you won't see any of the material we did, so if you check it out, we'd love to hear about what you see.

The Literati, at Chicago dell'Arte at RBP Rorschach, 4001 N. Ravenswood through May 1 -- Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday at both 8 p.m. & 10:30 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets $15, (773) 957-4191 or email