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Two men share a stage. In the background, standing under a harsh
spotlight, the first man chants urgently "We found them Henry, we found them."
In the foreground, the second man, defeated and weak, lies tucked in his deathbed. He
replies, "It's too late, it's too late." Fortunately for theatergoers, it's not
Fans and neophytes alike will be enchanted, enmeshed and excited by Ridge Theater's latest multimedia production, Jennie Richee, which explores the life and work of "outsider" artist Henry Darger. In this work, Darger is cast as a character named Henry D. and is played with conviction by Daniel Zippi. The artful production, directed by Bob McGrath, intertwines Darger's autobiographical musings with vignettes from his fantasy epic about seven virgins who battle evil men for enslaved children's freedom.
Henry Darger (1892-1973) lived most of his life in Chicago. He was a recluse who had survived a difficult and lonely childhood. During the day, he worked as a janitor for St. Joseph's hospital and attended Mass. The rest of the time, he wrote, drew, painted and collected scraps from trash bins, which he stored in his one-and-a-half-room apartment on the North Side.
After Darger's death, his landlord, the photographer Nathan Lerner, discovered a treasure-trove. Darger had created several manuscripts, the longest of which was a 15,000 page fantasy epic entitled "The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal of the Glandico-Angelinian Wars, as caused by the Child Slave Rebellion." Accompanying the manuscripts were illustrations, watercolors and 12-foot-long murals painted on both sides. The art work was astounding for an untrained artist and it often provided additional details about the story world that he had not articulated in his text. (Chicago art critic and journalist Michael Bonesteel has culled Darger's writings and art into a fascinating and informative book, Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, which remains the most complete text available.)
The production takes its name from the heroines' hideout, Jennie Richee, a dreamy place where giant petunia blossom and trees sprout high into the sky. Set designers Laurie Olinder and Fred Tietz beautifully create Jennie Richee on stage using three scrims upon which imaginative visuals, provided by Laurie Olinder and Bill Morrison, are projected. The first scrim sits at the mouth of the stage and separates the audience from the actors. The second rests mid stage and the third lies at the back. Among the scrims, the seven heroines, the Vivian Girls, perform with meticulously choreographed motions. The girls are dressed by costume designer Pilar Limosner in pretty yellow empire-waisted frocks with bobby socks and Mary Jane's. Their hair is molded into playful pigtails and braids, secured with giant pompoms. Rich atmospheric sounds (from sound designer Tim Schellenbaum), such as children playing or gunfire provide an intriguing depth to the fantasy world. The songs and music by Cynthia Hopkins are at times whimsical and melodic and at others, searing and operatic--both fitting for this bewitching tale.
In the story world, the Vivian Girls join forces with the pixyish Blengins in a four-year-seven-month war to save tortured and enslaved children from the evil Catholic Glandelinians who frequently disembowel their victims. Viewers unfamiliar with Darger and his work may be mystified by the fragmented narrative written by Mac Wellman which jumbles bits of Darger's life, borrowed from his journals and manuscript "The History of My Life" with the Vivian Girls' story. Nevertheless, this production provides a captivating journey through the fantastical world of Henry Darger.
New York, April, 2001 - Susanna Horng