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A trilogy for times of terror

The world of quarantine is paradoxical, with our immediate environments smaller and more constrained even as the big existential issues grow ever more ominous. What does it mean to live, to love, to dream in such circumstances?

A trifecta of plays I watched online recently, all with Chicago roots and all recorded from the Time Before COVID-19, address those questions in dramaturgically divergent but compelling ways. Collectively, they’ve probably affected me more than any of the other streaming work I’ve seen so far in quarantine, even if they don’t boast the slick recording quality of, say, the National Theatre.

Gentrification, William Blake, and Julia Child might not seem to have much in common. But Free Street Theater‘s Still/Here, Catastrophic Theatre of Houston’s There Is a Happiness That Morning Is (written by Chicago playwright and Theater Oobleck cofounder Mickle Maher), and TimeLine Theatre‘s To Master the Art all created an interesting conversation inside my head—which is where I, like too many of us, am spending entirely too much time lately.

Still/Here‘s subtitle—Manifestos for Joy and Survival—provides the roadmap for this 2019 show, filmed in August of last year and available for free through Vimeo. Created by the ensemble and directed by Free Street artistic director Coya Paz, the show is a series of vignettes raising evergreen questions about how segregation and discrimination have shaped Chicago’s history. 

Just seeing a crowd of people gathering on a sunny day in West Town’s Walsh Park is enough to trigger nostalgia in a time of pandemic. But the show also begins with the cast giving a rapid-fire rundown of “everything we remember that we love about Chicago.” The list includes outdoor water parks, Chinatown, roller skating on the south side, SummerDance at Michigan and Balbo, the smell of chocolate downtown, and music. Music everywhere

The opening vignette’s premise is that we’re hearing “final logs” from a city on the brink of apocalypse. But for most of its hour-plus running time, Still/Here, as the name suggests, is about being in the present, even as the forces of gentrification push the ensemble around. 

Literally. In one of the most engaging segments, the troupe enacts a game of musical chairs using a collection of milk crates representing public investment. As new “improvements” arrive—a school that is actually a cop academy, “affordable” housing that is anything but—the crates disappear one by one, and the people remaining try to figure out how to all fit into the space that is left.

But somehow, this show from pre-COVID days hit me as an even more vibrant and vital call to action now. Can this pandemic help us begin to address historic inequities in Chicago and beyond in health care, housing, education, and criminal justice? “Fear is what gentrification looks like. Death is what erasure looks like,” one ensemble member tells us. With both death rates from the coronavirus and arrests for violating social distancing restrictions hitting communities of color harder than primarily white neighborhoods, that observation straddles the line between epigram and epitaph, even as the show (based on interviews with 400 residents from all over the city) straddles the line between documentary theater and agitprop, with warmhearted doses of personal anecdote tossed in.

I saw Maher’s play four separate times in three different productions with Theater Oobleck, beginning with its first production in 2011 at the now-gone Storefront Theater downtown. So it’s safe to say it’s one of my favorite pieces to emerge from Chicago in the last ten years. One of the upsides of being quarantined and watching streaming productions is that I can catch up with work from around the country and the world, and it was delightful to revisit Maher’s piece, available free through Catastrophic’s YouTube channel, in the hands of a company wholly unknown to me.

As has been the case with Maher’s work now for several years, through such shows as The Hunchback Variations and The Strangerer, There Is a Happiness That Morning Is uses a sterile institutional background environment (and one dedicated to carefully structured public discourse) as a way to explode that environment and expose the rotting beams holding it up. 

Two academics and longtime lovers, Bernard and Ellen, are delivering intertwined lectures on William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience in the aftermath of having been caught in flagrante on the lawn of their small decaying liberal arts college. Their lectures are supposed to take the form of apology for having sex in public, on orders from the dean. But though Bernard, awash in midlife afterglow (“I happy am,” he burbles, quoting Blake’s “Infant Joy”) and fresh from a night in the woods, is more than willing to appease the powers that be to get things back to normal, Ellen is not. 

We soon learn that she’s dying of an abdominal tumor, which makes her choice of poem for the day, “The Sick Rose,” even more achingly ironic. And of course, even more of a gutpunch for us now, as we try to hide from virulence. “The invisible worm, That flies in the night,” indeed. And while their escapade on the quad has reinvigorated Bernard, Ellen thinks the ensuing public humiliation finally killed her love for him.

Catastrophic’s production, recorded in May of 2013 and directed by Jason Nodler, marks the first time I’ve seen any Oobleck show performed by a different troupe. I feel in many ways as if I’ve grown up alongside this company. The first Oobleck show I ever saw was in the winter of 1988—Jeffrey Dorchen‘s The Slow and Painful Death of Sam Shepard, written long before any of us had an inkling that the American playwright and poet of family tragedy on the plains would indeed have a slow death from ALS in 2017. I mourned with them last year as Oobleck founding member and my old friend Danny Thompson succumbed to a rare genetic disorder. If I have any yardstick for what truly original dramaturgy looks like, it began with Oobleck’s mash-up of the high- and lowbrow, the political and the personal, the epic and the ridiculous.

Happiness, written in rhyming couplets, arose out of what Maher described in a recent YouTube discussion with Catastrophic as “a real desire to write something with more humor and more sex in it.” And it is funny—at least, as funny as anything about death, love, and trying to find room for one last chance at honest self-revelation can be. In other words, it’s howlingly, horribly hilarious. And also bittersweet and wise. Amy Bruce and Troy Schulze as Ellen and Bernard bring out all the nuances of nostalgia, rage, and finally desperate need for connection driving the lovers, staring down the twin existential terrors of unemployment and death. That’s as relatable a set of circumstances as we’ll ever find these days.

“Hearts can’t say what’s in their now when dizzied by their future,” Ellen says late in the play. As we stay stuck in our now, dizzied and terrified by the future, the idea that perhaps salvation lies in choosing joy over fear, moment to moment and as best as we can, has never felt more noble.

TimeLine’s To Master the Art, now available on a ticketed paid basis for remote viewing through June 7, also celebrates the love of a couple of a certain age. Here, it’s Julia and Paul Child, as seen through the eyes of playwrights William Brown, who also directs, and Doug Frew, and endearingly embodied by Karen Janes Woditsch and Craig Spidle. Originally produced at TimeLine’s home space in Lakeview ten years ago, this recording is from the encore presentation in fall of 2013 at the Broadway Playhouse. I saw the first outing, but not this revival. But to my eyes, the proscenium staging loses little of the inaugural production’s intimacy in translation, and with the original cast all on board, it’s, well, a feast. 

Woditsch’s Julia is initially an awkward fish-out-of-water in Paris, where Spidle’s Paul has been stationed, courtesy of the United States Information Agency, to bring the best of American culture to postwar Europe. If you’ve seen Julie & Julia, the story will be familiar, though Woditsch, like Meryl Streep, is far too gifted an actor to indulge in mere mimicry of Child’s famously flutey voice. But the play feels poignant now for different reasons, and not just because some of us (though not me, sadly) are using time at home to beef up our own culinary skills, or wondering how to reinvent ourselves in a strange new world.

Paul especially is hounded by the McCarthyites in the State Department who are bent on sniffing out the merest whiff of communism, and Spidle’s layered take as a man increasingly frustrated by the conflict between his high-minded aspirations and the dull-witted (if not outright malicious) limitations imposed by bureaucrats feels bang on the nose; it also paired nicely with Ellen and Bernard’s dean dilemma in Happiness. And like the Blake scholars, Julia and Paul also find salvation in their love for each other and other pleasures of the mind and palate. 

“Here’s to mastering the art of living life to its fullest and enjoying every damn minute of it,” Spidle’s Paul proposes near the end of the enchanting TimeLine production. I didn’t cry the first time I heard that line onstage. But watching on my laptop at home, the tears sprang to my eyes.  v

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