Chicago Sun-Times
Quest takes unique trip to 'Oz'
September 2, 2005

You've never seen "The Wizard of Oz" quite like Quest Theatre Ensemble's current production.

Dancers with yellow swatches of cloth move around Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. Upstage, the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West has never looked so menacing. Her face alone is over 6 feet tall. A bank of floor lights made from coffee cans and ordinary light bulbs separate the performing space from the audience.

The yellow brick road we must travel down is often less than stationary. Obstacles often appear larger than life. And sometimes we forget that the ordinary can still yield magic.

Quest's production features more than 80 rustic puppets --all shapes and sizes from large-scale ones like the Wicked Witch down to hand puppet munchkins. They act opposite actors portraying other characters.

"Most people just want to hear the music when they see 'The Wizard of Oz,' " says Quest Theatre Ensemble's executive director Jason Bowen. "We wanted to give them something different."

Quest Theatre Ensemble isn't just unique because it's managed to put a new spin on a familiar tale. Quest doesn't charge admission, though it does take reservations because space tends to fill up and they conclude the performance with the proverbial pass of the hat.

"We all wanted to do something different by not charging admission," says Bowen, who also plays the Tin Man in the production. "We want to make art accessible and be known as be known as the people's theater of Chicago. The minute you put a price tag on art, you exclude people."

The majority of the ensemble members are graduates from Indiana State University who have relocated to Chicago. Though Quest's performers are paid a small stipend, most have day jobs and perform with Quest because of their love of theater.

"No one is getting rich here, unfortunately," Bowen says.

Quest Theatre's artistic director Andrew Park says the ensemble's puppet creations have a grotesque and Cubist quality to them intentionally. Quest is steeped in the traditions of Bertolt Brecht-styled theater.

"We're essentially doing what Brecht spent his entire life doing," he says. "We don't want people to forget they're watching puppets. We aren't trying to convince people that what they're seeing is real.

You know it's not real," he adds. "You're looking at a metaphor before you and because of that, the images can be extremely powerful."

Park is the resident puppet expert of the troupe. A ventriloquist and life-long fan of the art of puppetry, Park even did a summer residency in 2001 while in graduate school with Vermont-based Bread and Puppet Theater. That group is known for their large, parade-style puppets. When Quest was founded in 2002, Park says he knew puppetry had to somehow be a part of the group.

"Bread and Puppet Theater got their start protesting the Vietnam War and have ever since been performing at social gatherings where everyone is invited," Park says. "Quest wanted to be the people's theater of Chicago and Bread and Puppet represents the type of open and accessible art we're going for."

For the last two years, Quest has been the theater troupe in residence at St. Gregory's in the Andersonville neighborhood. Their performance space is the basement of that Catholic high school's gym and while it might seem unusual for a theater production, Park says the church and theater aren't necessarily incongruent.

"Quest tells great stories. The kind of stories that equip people to deal with life," he says. "In a large part, that's what theater is for. That's what myths are for That's what religion is for. They're all equipment for living."

Of course, their current theater space also doubles as the church's bingo hall on certain nights. As a result, the company has to take down the set and store props and the 80 puppets used in the play after every Sunday matinee only to reassemble it all in time for the following Friday night performance.

"We spent 2-1/2 years touring schools and churches," Bowen says. "We've gotten really good at packing."

"When we started Quest, we anted to do something different," Bowen says. "We wanted to build an audience first and then have a big show. It's paid off so far."

Quest's first production, "Blue Nativity" featured large-scale puppets re-enacting the birth of Jesus Christ. The group performs the work annually throughout churches in the Chicago area. The group followed up that success with another Christian-based story, "Easter Pageant" which reenacts the crucifixion with large-scale puppets.

"We aren't a religious theater company," Bowen says. "Our productions are accessible no matter what your faith."

Park says the group selected both the nativity and crucifixion because of the audience's familiarity with them.

"Our whole mission --whether it's 'Blue Nativity' or 'The Wizard of Oz' is to take a familiar story and tell it in a different light," Parks says. "It's not something people are expecting and we're able to move them as a result."

Though the group recently performed as a featured act at Kidzapalooza --the family-friendly portion of this year's Lollapalooza and has entertained L riders for two years as part of the Haunted L Halloween program, some Chicagoans think they are a religious-based acting troupe because of their affiliation with St. Gregory's and their past religious-themed productions,

"We don't really worry about being called a religious ensemble," Park says. "Some people may have that perception of us, but we're just glad to be performing for thousands of people like when we perform 'Blue Nativity.'

"Besides," he adds, "Several church groups have set up groups to see 'The Wizard of Oz,' so it all carries over."

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