When trying to evaluate a show like “X Marks the Spot,” it can be tempting to try to separate the play itself from the other elements at hand. But like so many temptations, this is something that should be avoided, as those “other elements” are actually quite the point. The show’s full title, after all, is “X Marks the Spot: An X-Tra Sensory Xperience,” and it was inspired by Chicago Children’s Theatre artistic director Jacqueline Russell’s work with children who are visually impaired. It’s about inclusion, and it’s about how we take in the story just as much as it is about the story itself.
‘X Marks the Spot: An X-Tra Sensory Xperience’ ★★★ When: Through Feb. 24 Where: Chicago Children’s Theatre, 100 S. Racine Tickets: $35 Info: www.ChicagoChildrensTheatre.org Run time: 70 minutes, no intermission
Conceived and directed by Russell, “X Marks the Spot” is loosely based on Edith Nesbit’s children’s novel “The Five Children & It.” Russell updates the time period from the Victorian era to the 1970s, moves the action from England to Michigan (by way of Chicago) and lops off the final child, leaving us with only four. The kids in question are Melody (Amanda de la Guardia), who is visually impaired and uses a cane, her rowdy sister Sky (Tina Munoz-Pandya) and their two brothers: the sporty eldest child Devon (Brian Keys), and their baby brother, Peanut (Anthony Lombard).
As the play begins, these four are whisked away from Chicago to rural Michigan by their mother, who’s taken a new job as an innkeeper. (The year is 1972, and so their father, sadly, is off fighting in Vietnam.) Although they find their new lakeside home to be deathly dull at first (the kids are forced to make their own TV shows), the siblings soon uncover something quite incredible: a grumbly, ill-tempered sand fairy buried on the beach. The fairy grants them three wishes, two of which go charmingly awry.
The action takes place in the round, with a painted white circle in the center marking out the actor’s playing space underneath a large ring hanging from the ceiling that glows all sorts of colors. The audience is seated at tables arranged around the edge of the room and are given blindfolds that they can take on and off at their leisure. At numerous points during the story, the friendly “Adventure Guide” assigned to each table will bring out various items for you to touch, smell and taste. You aren’t required to wear the blindfolds for these parts, but I highly recommend it.
Here’s an example: When the family is driving to Michigan, the kids play a game where they guess a color based on how it’s described to them, with each description centering around how the color tastes or smells or feels. The Adventure Guides ask the audience members to hold out their hands and then they brush a leaf against them or hand over a piece of clementine for the person to taste. Once the children have tasted, smelled, and touched the color, they are asked what color it is. It’s to the show’s credit that almost all the children in the audience can answer the question easily. Colors don’t have a distinctive taste, a smell, or a feel …. and yet they somehow do.
The cast members all bring that requisite blend of goofy charm and relentless energy that makes for an effective children’s theater performer. As Peanut, Lombard not only plays a convincing baby, but he’s also given the opportunity to try on a couple other hats as well, including those of a dance-crazy young man named (and I’m not making this up) Foxy McGroovy, and a kindly, goofy local sheriff. The actors collectively play the sand fairy in an act of synchronized found-object puppetry, and create quite the nice little monster in doing so. However, the show’s circular staging does get a bit hairy at these points; it can take some time before audience members in certain sections of the theater get a good look at the thing.
I chose to spend most of my time during “X Marks the Spot” with my blindfold off, watching the play as I would any other, only putting it on when it was time to touch/smell/taste something at our table. This choice was mostly done from habit, I suppose, with a dash of critic-flavored FOMO. I wish that I had been more adventurous; I would encourage future audience members (those who aren’t visually impaired) to partake in the adventure. Don’t let the “extra” part of “extrasensory” fool you, these bits aren’t superfluous add-ons; they’re absolutely key. They are very much the X that marks the spot.
Alex Huntsberger is a local freelance writer.