I go to a lot of theatre, film, and art galleries by myself, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, there are certain experiences that call for solitude, in order to better reflect on and soak in the moment. Sometimes, a play or a movie or an art exhibit is on its last weekend, and I have to run to go see it before it ends, so it’s impractical to round up people to come with me. At other times, I just feel that when I invite people to join me at the theatre, at a film festival, an art exhibit, or at a musical performance, there is some tentativeness, some reserve, some meta-looking-around-for-some-other-things-to-do-as-an-excuse-not-to-go, before the coup de grace, the soundbyte, the very polite, very respectful, but very firm turndown…”Well, I think (insert name of play/film/artist/composer/opera here) is a little too challenging.” Over the years, when friends, co-workers, and various associates use the word “challenging”, I view it as code for “I’m probably not going to enjoy myself”, so I graciously back-off. Last Sunday, I went to see James Thierree’s spectacular “Au Revoir Parapluie (Farewell, Umbrella)” at Chicago Shakespeare, by myself, since I knew people were going to view it–with its lack of a narrative storyline and dialogue and its meticulous set pieces combining acrobatics, pantomime, and even magic-as “challenging”. As I sat there enthralled at the myriad ways in which theatrical boundaries could be expanded, I regretted that I wasn’t sharing the experience with anyone I knew. What was dismaying to me too was that Chicago Shakespeare, despite being standing-room only, had very few audience members of my generation. Where were all my peeps?
“Umbrella” is world-class theatre that is very much apart from many of the productions currently running in Chicago. Thierree, the grandson of Charlie Chaplin, is acclaimed as one of the leading artists of the theatrical avant-garde in the world. He is a graceful, engaging, technically dazzling performer and he has brought with him to Chicago an international ensemble of dancers and physical performers who could perform at his level of artistry. ”Umbrella” had no discernible plot, but over a series of magnificent theatrical moments involving dance, song, mime, acrobatic acts, gymnastics, circus acts, even fencing, and using such eye-popping set pieces such as giant ropes, a stylized wheat field, a circus tent, a couple of cylindrical iron contraptions, and a tennis ball “meteor shower”, themes around the importance of family, coping with deep loss, and dealing with the unforgiving harshness of the world, emerged. In order to fully appreciate these themes though, one had to pay attention to the work; one had to accept being intellectually challenged.
Which brings me back to my initial observations- where is this reluctance from many people of my generation (the late 20s, 30s, and early 40somethings), to being challenged and provoked by art, coming from? Why do we have a need for straight-through narratives, clearly defined heroes and villains, and pat resolutions in theater and film? Why is being entertained more important than being unsettled? Why is ambiguity obnoxious? Is this the cultural impact of living in a time where many people have always, and only, known prosperity and material achievement? Is it the impact of a society where technological advancement reduces time and space but also attention spans? Is it the impact of the social conditioning that people who fill in the silences, who talk rather than reflect, are perceived as “high performers”? Why is “challenging” as applied to art, theater, film, music, seen by some of my peers as not cool, unhip, even, roll-one’s-eyes-pretentious?
To read the raves from Chicago’s critical royalty, click here and here. The Chicago engagement is the US premiere for “Au Revoir, Parapluie”, and it runs at Chicago Shakespeare until December 1. After Chicago, it travels to New York, for the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s (BAM) Next Wave Festival, one of the most significant performing arts festivals in the world. “Parapluie” can be seen in New York from December 4-16, 2007.