By Chris Jones
6:22 PM EDT, May 22, 2013
There's nothing new in Chicago about theater in small spaces — that's a crucial part of the city's aesthetic. If you glance at my recommended shows, you'll see several pieces staged in theaters with fewer than 100 seats, including "Rabbit," "Lascivious Something," "In the Company of Men" and the not-to-be-missed production of "The Knowledge" at the Steep Theatre, where, as one of my theater-loving Tribune colleagues recently noted, you are plenty close enough to see the veins bulging in the neck of actress Caroline Neff.
But the month of May has also brought us several experiments in theater for even smaller audiences. The smallest audience is one, of course, and that was how I experienced a very interesting Swiss curiosity titled "h.g.," which the Chicago Humanities Festival brought here a couple of weekends ago. The work of the group Trickster-p, this was a piece inspired by the story of "Hansel and Gretel." To experience it, you headed to the Chicago Cultural Center. You had to go alone — the show began with you entering a very dark space wearing headphones. Guided by a voice in your ear, you moved through various tableaux as if you were lost in a forest yourself. The piece intentionally denied you a shared experience, forcing you to encounter a loaded environment alone with your own fears and feelings. It was quite something, but was it theater or an installation, experienced as one experiences a painting in a gallery? Hard to say
Being trapped in real theaters every night, I wasn't able to see the performances of the Chicago Home Theater Festival this month, part of a national hyperlocal movement founded in Northern California four years ago. But I've been treated to vivid descriptions of several of the productions, including one that took place in the Streeterville condominium where artist Teresa Albor lives, and another in Kenwood, in chez Bill Ayers. More than one person showed up, of course, but these still were homes and thus performances designed for just a handful of attendees, bridging the gap between social and artistic encounters.
"Roadkill," the remarkable production created by the Scottish artist Cora Bissett and presented here by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, also takes place in an apartment. But this home is no home at all, rather a place where a young Nigerian woman is forcibly turned into a prostitute. For the last couple of weeks, audience members have been boarding a bus at Navy Pier to be driven off to Bucktown, where they share the same space as the actors in a brutal piece that portrays, in horrific detail, what is done to this young woman, intended to represent many such women who are taken from poor homes and transported to cities like Chicago. At an event before the show (which ends its local run Sunday, bound for New York), Bissett pointed out that her creation was about the most absurd economic proposition imaginable, given that the audience is limited to about 18 people per show.
That's true. Sitting on the bus, I pondered how the rental of that vehicle alone must eat up a good portion of the ticket price, nevermind securing the apartment, adding lights and sound, housing the actors from the United Kingdom and so on. Few nonprofit theaters cover all their costs for a particular show (whether producing or presenting), but this was one was a striking example of a show that cannot possibly pay for itself. Or even come close. If Chicago Shakespeare were a normal business, this was would be folly of the highest order.
Or would it? Businesses pay plenty for the kind of publicity that this production has brought the theater, and its supporters. While some of those scarce tickets have gone to regular audience members, Chicago Shakespeare also has tried to make sure that its supporters and various so-called "influencers" have been able to see the show. And while that might seem elitist— and there are dangers there — it is nonetheless in keeping with the essentially political mission of the piece, which is to draw global attention to the horrors of human trafficking.
This is really a very clever idea: Bissett is achieving her artistic goals by offering her audience an experience of extreme intimacy, an experience that would be compromised if it got any larger. Yet she achieves her political goals by ensuring that people all across the world are talking about what she is doing, intimately. And here we are complying. The show demands as much.
Writing a review of "Roadkill" last week (and the show is excellent), I found myself stymied by a familiar critic's dilemma taken to the extreme: How legitimate is it to give the story away in order to explain and evaluate the show? After beating up myself for a while, it dawned on me that almost none of my readers could or would actually see this show.
But many would be interested in this issue and, by extension, in what was going on in that apartment. Some theater is intended to be a vicarious experience, described in full for future use.
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