“The One and Only Ivan” Review - Lifeline Theatre’s KidSeries Launches Captivating Premiere of #1 New York Times Bestseller Book

Now through April 26, Lifeline Theatre in Rogers Park is presenting a captivating staging of “The One and Only Ivan,”a world premiere adaptation based on the bestselling book by Katherine Applegate about the true story of a remarkable gorilla who became a national symbol for animal welfare.

Ivan the gorilla (Christian Castro), trapped in his cage in a shopping mall, spends his days finger painting and dreaming of the jungle; Photo by Suzanne Plunkett

With the 99-seat theatre filled to capacity with youngsters, it was clear by their rapt, unwavering attention that the show’s themes of family, friendship, and what defines a home, really resonated and gave rise to quiet contemplation.


Based on a true-life story, the real-life Ivan was a silverback gorilla, exhibited in a Washington State shopping mall for more than half a century until public outrage moved him to better conditions at a zooBecause the show is recommended for ages 5+, the production removed the darkest details from the original book and provides just the right level of emotional challenge for the younger set.


Adapted by Lifeline Theatre ensemble member James E. Grote, the newest show in Lifeline’s KidSeries line up is directed by Artistic Director Dorothy Milne.  The show is based on the 2012 book published by HarperCollins which was a #1 New York Times bestseller and winner of the Newbery Medal.  The show runs for a comfortably paced one hour with no intermission.


As for the plot, Ivan the gorilla is seen living out a long, lonely life as a sideshow attraction in a shopping mall.  Upon meeting Ruby, a baby elephant captured in the wild and brought to his domain, Ivan evolves into the leader and protector he was always meant to be.

Ivan the gorilla (Christian Castro; left) shares stories of his days in the jungle with Ruby the baby elephant (Tiffany Oglesby, puppeteer; right). Photo by Suzanne Plunkett.

Similar to “Charlotte’s Web,” where Wilbur the pig famously and heartbreakingly delivers on a promise to the ailing Charlotte, “The One and Only Ivan,” focuses on Ivan’s valor in keeping a deathbed promise to a mother-figure elephant to baby Ruby. The audience is buoyed as Ivan leads the young Ruby (and himself) to a better place where nobody has to live out their lives as the one or the only of their kind, anymore.


For a multi-media, immersive experience, the show makes imaginative use of puppetry in the form of Bob the exuberant dog, as well as shadow puppetry used for poignant flashbacks of unfortunate first entanglements with mankind in the central African jungle that Ivan’s family called home.


The rich performances delivered by fine actors draw in the audience while making the adult theatre-goers completely forget they are watching a show staged with children in mind. Everyone leaves the production feeling like a fuller, richer human being conscious of our strengths and frailties, which is a nod to Lifeline’s mission of delivering big stories, up close, with passion.

Ivan the gorilla (Christian Castro; left) meets Bob the dog (Rick Smith, puppeteer; right). Photo by Suzanne Plunkett.

The full cast includes guest artists Allison Cain (Stella), Christian Castro (Ivan) with the talented AJ Kepka performing as Ivan during press previews, Tom Jansson (George), Tiffany Oglesby (Ruby, Julia), and Rick Smith (Mack, Bob). Understudies include Linsey Falls, Andrew Kepka, and Rachel Van Marter.  Crew includes Lifeline Theatre ensemble members James E. Grote (Adaptor) and Dorothy Milne (Director); with guest artists Juan Castaneda (Assistant Director), Benjamin W. Dawson (Production Manager), Jesse Gaffney (Properties Designer), Tony Ingram (Sound Designer), Joanna Iwanicka (Puppet Designer, Costume Co-Designer), John Kelly (Lighting Designer, Master Electrician), Katie Messmore (Stage Manager), and Joe Schermoly (Scenic Designer, Costume Co-Designer, Technical Director).


“The One and Only Ivan,”runs through Sunday, April 26 (no performances Easter Sunday, April 5) at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave. Regular performance times are Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Tickets are $15 and may be purchased at the Lifeline Theatre Box Office, 773.761.4477, or by visiting the theatre’s website.

Julia (Tiffany Oglesby; left) works on her artwork with help from Bob the dog (Rick Smith, puppeteer; right). Photo by Suzanne Plunkett.

Along with performances of “The One and Only Ivan,” the theatre is featuring a “Stories Come Alive! Hour,” where children enjoy an interactive storytelling session and on-your-feet theatre games. The cost is $5 per child with reservations recommended, though not required. Contact Lifeline Theatre at 773-761-4477 for more information.


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