REVIEW: Aurora Fox Arts Center’s ‘The Jedi Handbook’ honors imagination, nostalgia

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Mykail Cooley, top left, and Rashad Holland, top right, re-enact the final scene from The Empire Strikes Back, to impress their girlfriends, played by Noelia Antweiler, bottom left, and Emily Fisher, bottom right during a rehearsal of The Jedi Handbook: A Story for Generations.
Photo by Gail Brainstetter

If the latest Disney+ offering has you nostalgic for the early days of Star Wars, the Aurora Fox Arts Center has your back. The second play of the Fox’s 38th season, Stephen Massicotte’s “The Jedi Handbook,” takes a trip into the past as it explores the early days of the beloved franchise as seen through young eyes.

“The Jedi Handbook” opens in 1977, right after our protagonist, described only as “The Kid,” has moved to a new town, and with it, a new school. The Kid quickly becomes fast friends with classmate James, and the two bond over their love of Star Wars (known to us in the future as Star Wars: A New Hope) which had been released earlier that year.

The Kid and James set about incorporating their love of Star Wars into all things, playing out scenes from the movies and making their own attempt at becoming Jedi knights. Their own version of the Galactic Empire is represented by their fourth grade teacher, who rules the classroom with an iron fist. Her most dastardly plot comes when she decides to have the class put on a performance of A Charlie Brown Christmas for the whole school — and casts Richie as Charlie Brown! Will he remember his lines? Maybe the power of the Force, and friendship, will help him get through.

Act two skips ahead to middle school, where The Kid and James are starting to encounter something even more frightening than Sith lords — puberty. The scene opens with the pair waiting excitedly in line for The Empire Strikes Back, where they run into two of their female classmates, Kerry and Mandy. From there, the four navigate what it’s like to have one foot still in childhood and the other foot in the adult world, and how to hold onto the things you love as you mature.

Ultimately, “The Jedi Handbook” is a sweet story with plenty of laughs and comic relief moments throughout. It is a moving tribute to the power of imagination and its ability to sustain us throughout our lives. While a passing familiarity with Star Wars will improve viewing pleasure, granular knowledge of the series isn’t necessary to have a good time.

The cast’s five actors do a good job hitting the play’s serious and humorous notes. Mykail Cooley (The Kid) and Rashad Holland (James), both adult actors, do a great job playing kids in a way that’s convincing without being hokey and both put their all into the moments of physical comedy. Noelia Antweiler, who stole the show earlier this fall in a production of “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” at the Curious Theatre Company, and Emily Fisher pull off a number of roles in quick succession as the ensemble.

Hugo Jon Sayles serves as the show’s narrator, who is an older (but equally Star Wars-obsessed) version of the protagonist. His character unfortunately had the least compelling role — it was unclear why the story was being told using that framing device and the narration at times felt like it was unnecessarily slowing down the plot.

Off stage, director Geoffrey Kent, who also served as fight director, deserves major accolades for putting together a number of genuinely excellent fight scenes (complete with lightsabers).

This is a family-friendly play and a good option to see with kids, who will be drawn in by the Star Wars theme and the creative special effects, which, as usual, the Fox puts to excellent work during the production. For those who are older, it’s an enjoyable opportunity to take a trip down memory lane for a few hours.

Less enjoyable is the lack of a physical program — the Fox has gone digital this season, and instead of a usual playbill has a handout with a link to a QR code where the full program can be downloaded. If this is a move to cut costs or save paper it’s laudable, but the program font size is a strain to read on a phone screen and is even less of an ergonomic experience than trying to read a menu that way. Unless you can use the Force, don’t forget reading glasses.

Each act of the play is about an hour, with a 15-minute intermission in between. The play runs through December 18 and will be followed in the next calendar year by four more plays this season, starting with the U.S. premiere of “Acts of Faith” in January.

If you go:

Runs through Dec. 18, Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.

Approximate 2 hour runtime, plus 15 minute intermission

Adult tickets $20-$40

Purchase online at aurorafox.org or by calling 303-739-1970

Masks recommended but not required.

 

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