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Theater for NATO: Dramatizing Protest, Representing War

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This weekend in Chicago, as we braced ourselves for what would undoubtedly comprise a high-profile moment for protestors and heads of state, and a sometimes uneasy inconvenience for the rest of us, two theater pieces reminded me that the perennial "crisis of theater" as no longer relevant for art audiences -- let alone politics -- is once again easily defied. And in fact, these pieces make me want to argue that theater might be the best and sometimes only way to create/activate audiences to receive the kinds of hard-hitting political work in the real world that these companies are attempting to bring forth in their productions.

To start with the aesthetics of protest, Dog & Pony's unnerving "The Whole World is Watching" is both a timely revisiting of a political-cultural memory and a reminder that theater can do one thing that other art forms rarely can: literally implicate its audience as a crowd or mob participating in the action. From the first moments of entering the Biograph Theater's small upstairs rehearsal space, the audience is caught up in co-directors' Devon de Mayo (who wrote the script) and David Dieterich Gray's reenactment of late August 1968 in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention. Performed promenade-style (with audiences standing in the space of the theater itself rather than sitting at the edges), the show pushes you into the middle of the conflict and doesn't let go. The night I went, I was constantly moving to get out of the way of a cast of police (who at times seem to be surveying the audience as much as the rest of the cast), reporters, students and everyday citizens, Black Panthers, vocal hippies and eager campaign volunteers. For a piece about a protest that ends in police riots and the horror of the Hilton Hotel assault on cornered protestors (staged expressionistically and narrated in a harrowing play-by-play), the deep claustrophobia and urgency of movement that the show instills is both fitting and viscerally powerful.

Organized in staccato scenes cutting from various points of view (including, at times most touchingly, police officers preparing to go out and be universally loathed for carrying out their orders), the show utilizes multimedia, incorporating stacks of TVs screening archival footage, as well as political posters and brochures (the playbill is disguised as a campaign brochure for Eugene McCarthy) handed out by bright-eyed campaigners, upping the theatricality and realism at once. The large ensemble of a dozen-plus actors changes costumes and identity throughout the performance both out of necessity (the room feels full to bursting as it is) but also thematically to show how quickly identity is created and framed in the situation of a political protest. Songs by Stephen Ptacek literalize ideologies and fears and lend elements of both identification and alienation to the play, reminding us of the performative aspect of all political demonstrations, as do stunning choreography and stage pictures. Thus we are both enmeshed and self-critical; this is a show that doesn't let you distance yourself in any way for even a moment, and it's easily the closest experience to understanding the experience for NATO protestors as you could get this weekend. Sometimes being a theater audience, that most awkwardly synthetic of roles, is the only way to get at the truth of the "real" thing.

Meanwhile across town, a very different and equally ambitious production attempts to embody that which we hear over and over we can never understand unless we experience it for ourselves: participating in the physical traumas of war. Timed to run for only two nights (May 23 and 24) following the NATO summit, Spektral Quartet and High Concept Laboratory's Theatre of War is as concerned with accurate depictions of being at war as with the artistic mediums that can make more or less accurate aesthetic renditions of those experiences. To that end, the show's format is one of curated multimedia performances -- five in all, that run for just over an hour total -- with the theoretical question about how to represent the unrepresentable as a thematic inquiry.

The program was conceived by members of the classical and contemporary chamber music quartet Spektral Quartet, who had long wanted to perform George Crumb's Vietnam-era quartet piece Black Angels, which includes gongs, whispers, crystal glasses and shouts in its score and which quartet member Doyle Armbrust explained to me is about a "grappling with spiritual chaos as a result of war." For them, that element of spiritual questioning is "absent now" in our coverage of war -- and by extension, summits like NATO. The other quartet member with whom I spoke, Russel Rolen, emphasizes this contrast between Vietnam and our current "anesthetized" experience of watching our current hyper-reported wars.

From there, the program attempts to bring in discipline-intensive representations of war from a variety of artistic media, imagining, Rolen's words, "the impact and thrust of the lens of one particular art form" and "each artist's attempt to come to the subject and understand it." Describing their naivete at the beginning of the research process, Rolen and Armbrust emphasize that the piece is as much about war as our disconnect from it and that for "even those of us who want to be involved," there's an immensity that "we can't grasp" that those directly impacted by war often have difficulty articulating.

The pieces themselves, chosen and curated by Spektral Quartet, range from literature and music to video and theater. Virginia Konchan's short story Blackbird, adapted by High Concept Laboratory's Molly Feingold, dramatizes a soldier's attempts at psychotherapy to treat his PTSD (full disclosure: Virginia Konchan is a friend and colleague who first told me about the show). Chicago composer Drew Baker's Stress Position piano piece submits the performer of the piece (eighth blackbird's Lisa Kaplan) to a kind of torture inspired by Abu Ghirab and Guantanamo Bay; a stress position is, as Baker wrote to me, "a technique in which a detainee is forced to maintain a position that directs all or most of the body weight toward a specific muscle group." His piece requires the pianist to play at the far ends of the instrument, amplifying the noise until it creates a kind of torture for audiences and ending only "when the player can no longer go on. The role of fatigue and its impact upon the music is a central part of the overall experience." Richard Moss' videos, embedded in Gaza, Iraq, and Afghanistan, depict the waiting, anxiety, boredom, and hyperreality of war (Killkam features soldiers playing video games, juxtaposed with leaked Wikileaks footage of long-range missile attacks on city streets.) Finally, selected poems by Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborsk's writing represents another kind of attempt to represent, here through her plain-spoken depictions of cleaning up after war.

All ticket proceeds benefit the Vet Art Project, founded by drama therapist Lisa Rosenthal for the purposes of using different forms of creative art therapy to help veterans and their families. A video preview can be viewed here.

Whether or not the show succeeds either artistically or in its thematic attempt to presence the damages of war, Theatre of War is notable for its sheer insistence that we try in as many modes as we can and admit the limits of representation as well as our own naivete and sometimes apathy -- a strong counterpoint to the politics of enthusiasm (in 1968 or now, with or without clown makeup and pies that seem to be an early symbol of the NATO protests) that marks our protests and occupations of all kinds.