Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Paul Clark.
One of the most endearing characters to come out of L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories is the little patchwork girl. Though she is not the main character of her own book, she is the one people remember: a girl made up of patchwork quilts and brought to life by a magic powder. New American Folk Theatre’s original production of co-Artistic Director Anthony Whitaker’s “Scraps” tells her story in a bright, inventive, child-friendly and overall adorable way. Directed by co-Artistic Director Jamal Howard, the play combines The Patchwork Girl of Oz with several other books (notably those dealing with Ozma and the Land of Ev) and makes grand use of an ensemble of eight actors playing multiple roles.
For those who are unfamiliar: Scraps (Brittney Brown) is a girl made of patchwork stuffed with “extra brains and cleverness” but, like Baum’s Tin Man (who makes an appearance), lacking a heart. In her own story, she is a companion to the main character, Ojo the Unlucky (Preston Choi) in a search for a magical cure. Here, tired of her dull and repetitive life (shown in a brilliant opening), Scraps decides to (literally) go where the wind may take her to find out what she is “meant” to be. On her journey, she meets a sky witch (Charlie Irving) and visits with old friends in the Emerald City including Dorothy (Irving again), Princess Ozma (JD Caudill) and Ojo (here demoted to side character) before taking a trip to the Land of Ev with Prince Evring (Vic Kuligoski), where she meets his cousin, Princess Langwidere (Kelly Combs), a woman with an entire collection of heads she has taken so she can be the most beautiful in the land. It isn’t long before Scraps is wearing one of Langwidere’s heads and believing that she has finally found the key to real life because of how differently she is treated without her patchwork head.
Complicated? I haven’t even mentioned the old inventor (Jeffrey Hoge) and his wife (Kelsey Shipley) who made Scraps in the first place, one of whom is lost in the sky and the other considering turning herself into a statue, or the living Pumpkin Head (Combs again) and victrola. But all of these wonderful characters are ultimately there to support Scraps on her journey in this conglomeration of a tale, one with a typically Ozian ending, which children may enjoy as much as adults. (I think NAFT does itself no favors by not scheduling matinees for this production.)
Baum being Baum, many of the side characters here are also or have been in search of the real meanings in their own lives. Ojo is desperately in love with Prince Evring, who wants to requite his love but feels trapped by his royal name. Dorothy, now a Princess of Oz, doesn’t quite understand what her life is supposed to amount to, but spends a great deal of it in an affair with Ozma, a transgender ruler who is “part boy and part girl” and who doesn’t quite know whether she is in the right place as a princess either. (Though the same-sex relationships are not in the Oz books, Ozma’s backstory is.) Even an enchanted book spends the play comically searching for the truth of its existence.
In the title role, Brown is entirely endearing. Despite spending the majority of the play with her face hidden behind a mask, her ebullience and energy shine through, making Scraps (whom some of the others consider a bit of a joke) a fully developed person in her own right, despite what she might believe. In someone else’s hands, the role might have become caricature, but Brown is careful to take Baum’s unusual creation as seriously Scraps takes herself.
With beautiful costumes by Zachary Ryan Allen and fun puppetry by Whitaker, along with Howard’s quick pacing and this cast’s clear joy of performance, Scraps is an enjoyable couple of hours. (The play’s first act could be somewhat truncated and the intermission eliminated to get it down to an hour and a half, which is probably what the material demands.) It’s unfortunate that, the night I saw it, very few people were in the audience. Inventive and fun, Scraps deserves better than the, um scraps left over from other shows. Its warm-hearted message, campy style, and strong acting make it a good choice for the entire family.
Scraps is a New American Folk Theatre production now playing at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee, Chicago, until September 29. Performance times vary; check the website at New American Folk Theatre for tickets, schedule and times. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.