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I find it a little ironic that steps away from the old Water Tower, where some people have told me they feel “so cool” coming to the theater to see a famous Chicago chef cook Mexican mole onstage amidst acrobatic acts, real theatrical artistry is in demandingly unapologetic glory at the MCA Chicago.  I’ll leave the dinner spectacle being passed off as theater to others, and recommend, without hesitation, to the smart, discerning, globally-oriented set the myriad of performance pleasures at Teatr Zar’s The Gospels of Childhood Triptych, currently at the MCA in a too-brief run until Sunday, April 1 as part of its essential MCA stage programming.  I can confidently say that the $35 ticket was one of the best uses of my money in the past half year.

Theater began from religious ceremony (the Greek religious festivals) and some of the best examples of theatricality in the world are religious in nature (the Christian passion play, for instance).  So Teatr Zar’s mission, which is as much anthropological and documentary as it is performance, is pretty impressive.  It is a theater and performance group based out of the Grotowski Institute, the research and performing organization in Wroclaw, Poland named after the titan of experimental theater, Jerzy Grotowski, who revolutionalized performing arts with his non-linear storytelling methods and distinctive use of environmental staging.  The group is particularly focused on creating ensemble theater work using religious songs and rites handed down as oral tradition among ethnic groups in Georgia, Bulgaria, Greece, Sardinia, most them belonging to the Eastern Orthodox faith (“zar” is the term for the funeral songs of the Svaneti tribe in Georgia).  If I haven’t lost you after that sentence, then you should indeed buy your ticket now!

But some things to know before you do buy that ticket: the episodes are non-linear in nature, so there’s hardly any narrative.  The minimal text is spoken sometimes in English, sometimes in Polish and other Eastern European languages, without translation.  The works demand concentration, and in the first episode, “The Overture”, stillness and patience, qualities that theatergoers used to The Phantom of the Opera may not be used to. Also, for this particular theatergoer, ultimately the appreciation for the work is impressionistic and experiential, versus complete understanding.  And if these are all fine with you – and for smart, sophisticated theater audiences, they should be – then, you’re in for quite an experience.

The first episode of the triptych, “The Overture” tells, loosely, the story of Lazarus’ resurrection from the eyes of his sisters Martha and Mary, and from the testimony of Mary Magdalene, using ancient ecclesiastical hymns and funeral songs from Georgia, Bulgaria, and Greece.  The stage pictures, usually lit very dimly, or with a single spotlight, are truly evocative, and haunting and spine-tingling as they are accompanied by harmonious singing and chanting.  The second episode, “Ceasarian Section.  Essays on Suicide”, is probably for me the most enthralling, and the most different in tone from the episodes bookending it.  Although it uses ancient Corsican songs, they’re mixed in with a score from French composer Eric Satie, astoundingly performed using a variety of musical instruments including a saw, so the effect is contemporary yet haunting.  This episode is also fierce, raging, frenzied, which are spot-on depictions of desperation and suicidal thoughts.  The last episode of the triptych, “Anhelli. The Calling”, uses Byzantine and Sardinian hymns to again, loosely, tell the story of the Polish poet Juliusz Slowacki’s trip from Naples to the Holy Land. His poetry supposedly talks about human beings preparing themselves to be possessed by angels, but I’m not sure how the vigorous dancing and stunning stage imagery using a billowing sail, doorframes, and the male cast members lying in dirt graves, communicate that.  This episode is pretty opaque, but still breathtaking.

The ensemble is so impressive and awe-inspiring, both in their multi-faceted talents (dancing, singing, chanting, acrobatics, instrument-playing) as well as in their focused, no-holds-barred dedication to their performances  (in “Ceasarian Section”, the actors danced and rolled around a line of broken glass onstage, and I truly wanted to cry “watch out” several times!). The Gospels of Childhood Triptych is truly unique, uncompromising, world-class theater, and last night at the MCA was one of those nights that I felt really grateful and fortunate to be actively participating in Chicago’s vibrant cultural life.  Without a doubt, the MCA Stage is so integral and irreplaceable in ensuring this vibrancy never falters.

Teatr Zar’s The Gospels of Childhood Triptych is on the MCA Stage,  202 E. Chicago Avenue, until Sunday, April 1.  Tonight and Saturday night’s performances are sold out! Go on Sunday or you’ll be kicking yourself for missing one of the theatrical events of the year!


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