The show begins before you enter the theater lobby on the 14th floor of the Cambria Hotel, before the costumed attendants greet you just past the revolving door at the northeast corner of Randolph and Dearborn and usher you into the elevator, before you step off or out of your preferred mode of transport and into the entropic eddies that are the awkward traffic of humans and cars learning to move en masse again, where some shop and some shout and some gawp agape across the street from—yes—street performers on trumpets outside the Macy’s. Check the mirror before you go out, because the show begins with you, and this is the last time you’ll ever not be at the first show to open in the Chicago Loop since early 2020. Will lipstick survive a bus ride under a mask? I have done the research, and the answer is yes.
The state of the lobby is an amuse-bouche of the glitz and kitsch that await you this evening: chandeliers drip with blinding prisms, reproductions and imitations of Postimpressionist art blare. You can sit on a sequined slice of the moon and have your photo taken—a few writers in compliance with the suggested “festive” attire (for research purposes only) might not have been too cool for it this one time. We’re going back to the theater, and we’re breaking out our best beads.
If you didn’t bring your own tiara, you can buy one. If you need a beverage immediately, you can buy one of those, too (if you’re on a budget yet must imbibe, pack a flask. You didn’t hear that here). The immaculate restrooms operate with the same efficiency as the elevators: you may have to wait a minute but the line keeps moving. In the meantime, behold the novelty of other faces, three-dimensional and strange, or your own among them, in the myriad mirrors on the wall.
Once inside the tent, the lights are red, and the tables are close. Everything is shining—the art deco glass, the mirrors, the disco ball (why not?). Everyone gets their own little dish of hummus and olives. The salt is centering.
When the action begins, your eye will wander. Dancer Mickael Bajazet has you from the moment he strikes up the band—every impish expression compels with sweetness. But before you get too comfortable, a bit of slapstick starts up between a custodian (Oliver Parkinson) and a maid (Cassie Cutler). Take note: they are unusually lean and muscular. This is called foreshadowing.
“I missed the look of you—the smell of you—the group spooning,” croons The Caesar (Frank Ferrante), your host with a little too much of the most. The Caesar’s hair gleams. The Caesar perspires profusely. The Caesar is quick with improvised lines and quicker to demand applause. The Caesar commands hapless audience members to the stage. Introverts who have not already perished from general overstimulation will wither forthwith.
But regardless of your perspective on compulsory audience participation, humiliation brings your fellow theatergoer into full relief—and who are we here for, if not each other? (On this day, Matt, who manages gyms. Alexa, actually a real person. Patrick, who sells rope. James, an engineer. James, a data analyst. Joyce, who graduated from Farragut High School in 1951. Whatever mnemonic devices The Caesar is using, they stick.) “We are here!” he shouts—and in the colored light of the specials, you can actually see what we’ve been thinking about all these months—fine droplets streaming through the air, the toxic haze we all exhale. Like it or not, tonight’s the night we find out if our vaccines really work.
The introduction of a bedazzled mummy case sets the tone for the rest of the night, Vegas in the midwest, with a relationship to authenticity like the Caesar salad has to the Roman Republic—tasty if you don’t think about it as anything beyond a pop culture legend of a love triangle with a sexy queen. For she is here with us, Cleopatra (Storm Marrero), with a big voice and a costume to match (designed by Zane Pihlstrom), often in duet with Cunio—together they are fearless, unstoppable, glittering like a planetarium.
Cleopatra and Caesar need their Mark Antony, here played by clown and codirector Joe De Paul who can only be described as inhabiting a zone between disarming and perturbing, an ordinary guy off the street until he isn’t.
The greatest treats of the evening are also its greatest feats—dance and acrobatics by Duo 19 (Parkinson and Cutler), Bajazet and Vita Radionova, and Lea Hinz—performed at such close range, you can see every supple muscle quiver and track the calculations of coordination. Impossible distillations of physics, ingenuity, and craft keep bodies hovering between flight and fall—exquisite illustrations of trust in humans and human invention, radiant, perilous, tilting extravagantly on the edge of folly, mastery of this moment. (Between the acts, these same performers bring you plates. They pepper your food. They pour your water. It’s not new but still needed: a reminder of the life of service that many artists lead.)
Yet perhaps the greatest pleasures of the program refer to the sense of togetherness we can experience beyond the boundaries of the theater—the energy of others, a slow dance, a kiss on the cheek. Life is theater, theater is life. We are here. v