A Weekend of “Rain” and “Shadows”

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a-steady-rain.jpgIt was St. Patrick’s Day weekend, and as I have come to expect all these years I have been living in this city, much of Chicago (the northside particularly) was plunged into the usual incomprehensible drunken stupor that this weekend brings (this is the one time in the year when it seems like many Lincoln Park Chads get the same idea that it’s really cool to run whooping through green lights, without a coat in 40 degree weather- yeah, gag me).   Fortunately, there were a lot of things to do over the weekend in Chicago other than sit at a bar named Molly’s or Kelly’s or O’Doul’s downing pints of Guinness.  On Saturday, I went to see the highly acclaimed A Steady Rain which had transferred to the Royal George Theater’s cabaret space from a sold-out run last year at Chicago Dramatists.  Intense and searing are the words that immediately come to mind about this play, and the deafening buzz for an off-Broadway or a London production coming soon makes this Chicago theater lover proud.  I’d be interested to see how audiences in those cities respond to a work that is so powerfully Chicago in terms of tone, milieu, and characterizations.  On Sunday, I was at the MCA Chicago for the unique experience of seeing William Yang, Australian photographer and performance artist, tell stories about aborigines and German immigrants in Australia, as well as recollections of two highly charged, very different trips to Berlin (before and after the Wall came down), in a piece called Shadows, a powerful combination experience of a theatrical performance, a musical concert, and an art exhibition (which was seen a couple of years ago in the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, the festival of innovative, cutting-edge theatrical work).  I love the contrast between these two live performances – A Steady Rain is punch-to-your-gut, sweat-inducing, jaw-numbing; Shadows is cerebral, thoughtful, provocative; both give its audiences a euphoric high that can only be brought about when witnessing compelling, memorable, high-caliber art, a high that ten bottles of Irish beer would be hard-pressed to replicate.

Keith Huff’s A Steady Rain is simply staged- two characters sitting at or moving around a table talking about events in their lives as Chicago cops.  But no one really needs more than a table and chairs (and in this instance, even these seem extraneous) when you have writing this vivid and sharp, characters this real, and acting this mind-blowingly great.  Randy Steinmeyer and Peter DeFaria start off as bantering, boorish, aggressive Chicago cops that seem familiar from a re-run of “Hill Street Blues” on Nick at Nite.  But over the course of ninety, mesmerizing minutes, they transform into these fascinating, tragic character studies grappling with questions of morality, loyalty and betrayal, self-definition, quality of judgment, flawed natures.  Some can criticize that part of Huff’s writing is not that fresh (I’m perplexed by the use of the Jeffrey Dahmer serial killer events as the catalyst for one of the moral dilemmas, for instance) but I think overall the story is so riveting, the dialogue is so pointedly honest, and the psychological themes (what drives a police officer’s decision-making process?  Why is there a perception among those that are tasked to protect and dispense the law that they are above the law?  What is the nature of male friendship and bonds?) so intriguing, that, in the larger scheme of things, the weaknesses of the script are mere nits.   And with acting this magnificent, these nits disappear.  I haven’t been so transfixed- mouth open, eyes wide, fists clenched, heart pumping- by a performance on a Chicago stage as I was on Saturday with Randy Steinmeyer since Deanna Dunagan’s historic turn in Steppenwolf’s August:  Osage County last summer.  Steinmeyer’s intensity pummels you, but his honesty touches you deep down in your own dark places.  In one scene, Steinmeyer, as Denny, angrily and boldly recounts how he took his injured son to Illinois Masonic using his police squad car, a clear violation of the rules which he feels he had a right to do in order to save his son’s life, and without missing a beat in his belligerent tone and with his strong jaw still proudly set, tears suddenly come gushing down his cheeks.  I think the entire Royal George theater wanted to give him a standing ovation right at that point of the play.  DeFaria (whom I admired in TUTA’s Huddersfield a couple of years ago) matches Steinmeyer’s game word for word, beat for beat, sweat bead for sweat bead.  At the end of the show, the thunderous standing ovation that these guys received was one of the most well-deserved I had seen in this Chicago theater season.

There wasn’t any thunderous anything at William Yang’s Shadows, part of the MCA Chicago’s performance series.  Thunderous would have been out of place in this theatrical event given the precise, mellifluous rhythmic patterns of the piece, brought about by the confluence of Yang’s placid speaking style, the ethereal original musical score performed live by composer Colin Offord using indigenous Australian instruments, and the simple, untheatrical photographs that Yang took and which he uses to tell his various stories.  Yang tells his stories simply and directly, accompanied by Offord’s haunting music- stories about an extended aboriginal family that he gets to know very well; or about traveling through New South Wales and learning about the history of German immigrants in that part of Australia; or about visiting Berlin in the early 2000s and comparing its thriving, modern, capitalistic vibrancy with the drab East Berlin he visited in 1981.  The stories are all independent of one another, but as Yang tells them and moves fluidly through them, one is struck by the overarching theme of dealing with the past – either by reconciling with it, making up for it, obscuring it, or letting it determine the course of future opportunities and decisions.  Shadows demands attention and post-performance reflection, it is not an easy work to digest- reactions to the work cannot be immediate or visceral (given the nature of the work, I was surprised, and heartened, by the healthy size of the audience during the Sunday performance).  Yang is an expert storyteller, and as such he does not explicitly present judgments- the audience is challenged to ponder the stories told and come to their own conclusions.  One thing I came away with from this piece is the thought that we can never truly make up for the injustices and atrocities of the past, that true “reconciliation” with our history is not possible.  Yang relates the Australian government’s official apology to the indigenous tribes publicly given earlier this year, but minutes before that he shows us the socially disadvantaged, meandering, poverty-stricken lifestyle of the aboriginal family, a direct result of the colonial policy of the British in Australia.  It’s a powerful counterpoint – today’s Australian government can apologize all it wants, but the historical, unrelenting marginalization of the aborigines have intrinsically affected this group’s ability to live the good life that the regular Australian citizen enjoys.  In the Berlin story, Yang relates going to the Jewish museum in Berlin and being struck by the incongruity of having a Jewish museum in Germany but also by the limited material devoted to the Holocaust, as if the museum’s curators saw it “as just one other event in the history of Jewish persecution”.  It’s an important line in Shadows, because it drives home the point that acknowledgement of the heinous deeds of the past can never be reparation for it.

Chris Jones is the biggest advocate for A Steady Rain- read his incessant raving.  A Steady Rain runs at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted st., until April 27.  Please run and see it before we export it out to vast points unknown.  William Yang has already moved to Boston and the rest of his US tour.  The two-night Chicago stint was definitely not enough.

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