Little Brother | Inhuman Swill | William Shunn


Little Brother

This theater review was originally published online at Science Fiction Weekly, June 15, 2009.

Chicago theatergoers with a taste for technogeekery and a passion for politics are in luck this summer. The Griffin Theatre Company ( is currently staging an adaptation of Cory Doctorow’s Hugo-nominated 2008 novel Little Brother, and you should definitely be watching.

The story, adapted by William Massolia and directed by Dorothy Milne, follows 17-year-old Marcus Yallow (Mike Harvey), a San Francisco hacker who goes by the handle “W1n5t0n.” While Marcus and his friends are cutting class to go ARGing (alternate reality gaming), terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge. In the ensuing chaos, the teens are swept up by Department of Homeland Security forces and mercilessly interrogated.

Marcus and his friends are released from DHS custody with orders never to speak of their ordeal. They find a changed world outside, where citizens gladly yield their civil rights for the promise of safety. Angry and humiliated, Marcus declares war on DHS, leading an underground rebellion, but nothing goes quite as planned. The more he fights for liberty as he sees it, the more he’s painted as a terrorist himself.

Little Brother is an exciting and thought-provoking production, imaginatively staged on a bare-bones set with some multimedia elements stirred in. It’s at its best when pitting Marcus and his friends directly against Homeland Security, as in the hair-raising aftermath of the terrorist attack, or when presenting impassioned arguments between people who want the same political ends but can’t agree how best to achieve them.

The production’s a little less successful when trying to explain the technical details of Marcus’s rebellion. Fans of the novel won’t have any trouble following the talk of RFIDs, Paranoid Linux, and public-key encryption, but audience members new to the material may feel like the actors are speaking Greek. The script is also sketchy enough on the details of a few off-stage events that some people may find themselves confused.

Still, the main thrust of the story is engaging and at times quite powerful. Anyone fascinated by the question of civil liberties in an age of terrorism will find plenty of food for thought here, but it’s young people who will most cheerfully embrace the play’s rousing cry to “Never trust anyone over 25!”  

Little Brother, now in previews, opens officially June 14, and runs Thursdays through Sundays until July 19. Tickets are available at the Athenaeum Theatre box office, 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago, IL, or through Ticketmaster by phone at 800-982-2787 or online at

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