The Thief Lord at First Stage
It’s the same old story, told again — this time set in Venice. Two orphaned brothers, on the lam from an evil guardian aunt, meet a band of young orphan thieves, led by the masked Scipio — aka The Thief Lord. They are pursued by a turtle-toting detective, and everyone ends up looking for a magical carousel.
All kidding aside, this adaptation (by local author/actor James DeVita) of Cornelia Funke’s famous fantasy novel on the Todd Wehr Theater stage is a distillation of an epic story, filled with moral ambiguities and flawed characters that works for its young target audience while also keeping the adults amused.
But it also makes serious theatergoers and critics wonder: could this be so much more?
One of the problems in whittling down a 352-page story in which the author has plagued young characters with secrets and traumatic relationships with each other and adults is that it all has to make basic sense within the confines of children’s theater.
There is still a lot of fun and adventure in this current staging, and since this is a world premiere version, there is room for future adaptations. One wonders what could become of unused scenes, bigger scale scenery and workshopped acting on a big-budget, long-run staging in Chicago or New York. What would The Thief Lord be like as a Broadway musical, where characters can emote inner turmoil in song? Only time will tell.
As for this version, the play clips along nicely given the constantly evolving storyline. What starts off as an escape to a mysterious, ancient city becomes a story about a bumbling yet genial detective working on a conundrum. Then it becomes a story about a boy rebelling against stern parents, then a search for a lost wooden wing, a few con games and then a neat wrap up.
Multiple plots and multiple main characters are characteristic of author Funke, as anyone who has tried to watch the film version of Inkheart can attest. However, it doesn’t allow a lot of time to focus on Scipio (played in the opening night “Guardian Angel” cast by Nathan Kluge), or dwell on older brother Prosper (“GA” cast member Avi Wolf Borouchoff). This script discards the growing friendship and power struggle between those two characters as well. The other thieves get even less of a chance to draw out personalities beyond scripted lines. It’s a marvel to watch young Bo (“GA” cast member Tyler Johnson) read a bulk of the lines, given his age (supposedly seven in the plot, but the actor can’t be more than six).
The much-rumored stage is actually quite spartan but still versatile through clever use of tunnels and theater aisles to give the illusion of chasing around Venice. I was expecting some sort of simulated water but got swirly green lights and fog. There are gondolier poles but no boats. There is a nifty carousel, but I won’t spoil the fun describing it. The costuming and plot device fixes end up setting the play in modern times (everyone’s got cell phones, which was still a small luxury in 2000 when the book was published), yet they feel well thought out in color schemes and usage.
In the talkback following the opening night performance, young audience members asked questions about the stage and carousel. My 10-year-old niece who accompanied me proclaimed it a hit, but when pressed, her accolades were for the staging tricks and plot devices. So for kids, it’s a visual presentation and fantasy story. For adults, it’s a frothy adventure tale of runaway youth and the battle between wanting to be a grown-up and being young again. Deeper drama and turmoil will have to emerge some other time.
The Thief Lord continues its weekend runs now through Feb. 6, with an added two-show matinee performances on Feb. 14. Show your love. Visit the First Stage website for details and ticketing or call 414-273-7206. The youth cast alternates between two troupes, nicknamed “Magical Lion” and “Guardian Angel,” for different performances.