Chicago Theater Review: THE LAST ACT OF LILKA KADISON (Lookingglass Theatre Company)

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by Sarah Taylor Ellis on August 18, 2011

in Theater-Chicago


Truth be told, The Last Act of Lilka Kadison chronicles an entirely conventional story – but Lookingglass Theatre’s production elevates this historical melodrama to a work of theatrical magic.

Written by Nicola Behrman, David Kersnar, Abbie Phillips, Heidi Stillman, and Andrew White, The Last Act of Lilka Kadison is a stunning memory play of lost love. In her cluttered present-day Los Angeles home, the elderly Lilith “Lilka” Fischer (Marilyn Dodds Frank) is haunted by her young love Ben Ari Adler (the intoxicatingly debonair Chance Bone). As the old woman nods off throughout the evening, her past collapses into her present. Ben and Lilith’s 17-year-old self (Nora Fiffer) reenact their affair, which was cut short by the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939.

Lookingglass’ unique styling of young Ben and Lilka’s romance keeps the production fresh and invigorating. This young couple falls in love while collaborating on a Yiddish toy theater production: an adaptation of the story of Solomon and Sheba, filled with playful placards, pop-ups, and other homespun theatrical magic. Ben and Lilka’s affair is an enchanting piece of toy theater itself, framed by the proscenium arch. Jacqueline and Richard Penrod’s stunning set becomes a theatrical box with props and platforms that pop from the walls, feathers and letters that float from the ceiling.

The Last Act of Lilka Kadison - directed by David Kersnar - Lookingglass Theatre CompanyThe spectral Ben prompts Lilith to remember the past by pulling old records from the shelves and uncovering dusty toy theater boxes. Each object is a dense receptacle of memory – and not only for Lilith. The old woman’s caregiver Menelik Kahn (Kareem Bandealy) also finds echoes of himself in the clutter; like Lilith, this Pakistani man is a sympathetic subject of displacement and loss.

The greatest theatrical magic of The Last Act of Lilka Kadison lies in the tight-knit ensemble, which is refreshingly cross-cultural and intergenerational. Nora Fiffer and Marilyn Dodds Frank give particularly layered performances as the younger and older Lilka. Fiffer presents a shy, well-mannered Jewish girl with occasional outbursts of the feminist firecracker she will become; and although cantankerous in her old age, Frank’s Lilith softens when she recalls her youthful romance. David Kersnar’s direction clearly delineates The Last Act of Lilka Kadison - directed by David Kersnar - Lookingglass Theatre Companythe past from the present even as he draws beautifully nuanced cross-temporal connections. His ensemble feels constantly engaged, with a palpable awareness of all that is transpiring onstage.

Like Ben and Lilka, or like Solomon and Sheba, our own relationships are filtered through a lens of self-consciously theatrical storytelling. All our stories are conventional – but a touch of theatrical magic lies in the unique details. In its playful design and powerful ensemble dynamic, Lookingglass’ production of The Last Act of Lilka Kadison makes for a truly captivating tale.

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photos by Sean Williams

The Last Act of Lilka Kadison
scheduled to end on August 21
for tickets, visit

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit

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