Regional Reviews: Chicago
The Art of Bowing
Also see Christine's recent review of Marie and Rosetta
There are some plays whose messages are straightforward and easy to understand. There are others that force audience members to work a little bit, and there is nothing wrong with that. Actually, I prefer plays that have a bit of mystery about them, that take the audience on a journey they never could have expected when they walked in. One such play is Haven Chicago's production of Nathan Alan Davis's metatheatrical The Art of Bowing, now playing at then Den Theatre. If you are willing to spend some time allowing its unusual structure and dynamics to seep into your soul, this is a play that will reward your efforts.
There are some reviews also that are straightforward and easy. This isn't necessarily one of them. Instead, it will be what I think of as an English teacher review, as its liberal use of quotations and specificities harken back to my nearly four-decade teaching career. Don't worry: if I do it right, it won't be hard to digest.
The central conceit of the play is that theatre is dead–which makes it automatically a metacomment on the depressing state of the art in our post-pandemic times. At the Den, three actors–well, one of them, Akwasi, insists he is not an actor–somehow arrive on a blackened, empty stage and, as actors are wont to do, decide to turn the emptiness of the end into a play that, they hope, will put it in context with other momentous moments in world history. Oh, and manage to be entertaining at the same time for the audience, who is, for some unknown reason, also there. (At one point, one of them, channeling Russell Crowe in The Gladiator, yells "Are you not entertained?") What happens onstage, we infer, will be a strange set of events that, taken as a whole, just might help to explain how we got to this point.
Akwasi is actually the first onstage. (David Goodloe, who plays him, was sitting next to me before the play began and actually held the start as I attempted–and eventually succeeded–to stop an extreme hacking cough brought on by the walk to the Den on a day when Chicago's air quality was once again "If you breathe this, you might die." I owe him and the rest of the cast a debt of gratitude; I had already gone out to the lobby and was starting to believe I was going to have to miss the show.) Akwasi, who calls himself a "resurrector," will join with younger actors Enoch (Beck Nolan) and Farah (Bryanna Colon) to resurrect theatre from the dead.
It begins when Akwasi finds and turns on a ghost light in the dark space. In fact, for the first ten or more minutes of the play, that ghost light is the only illumination we get. Akwasi is an irreverent man who, he tells us, has been biding his time waiting as theatre went through its death throes. Now that he is going to bring it back, he warns us: "I apologize in advance for any and all complications including–but not limited to–ruptures of consciousness, misrepresentations of history, breaches of etiquette, loud noises, chronic disorientation, et cetera, ad nauseam, which may occur during our merry stroll through this Valley of Death."
There is no doubt that this will not be any kind of normal play.
Enoch has just begun what he had hoped would be a fruitful career on the stage. His opening lines sum up his emotional reactions to everything: "A light!? A LIGHT!!?? A light! Oh, light! Oh solace of my soul! Light. Light. Light." OK. He's trained on Shakespeare, and it shows. He also carries around (and occasionally updates) what he has entitled "Things to Remember in Case the Theatre Dies: A List in Several Parts and Several Sub-Parts, by Me, Enoch, an Actor Through and Through."
So that's Enoch. Nolan gives him sincerity and honesty through and through, even when the script calls for him to be rather foolish. And his seeming innocence contrasts nicely with Goodloe's frustration and anger–this play calls out racism bluntly on several occasions, and the actor builds on his reaction to that and to the hopelessness of their situations as the play goes on. Director Ian Damont Martin clearly had his hands full keeping all of this straight with his performers.
Then there is Farah, who wanders into the dim light wondering if the end of theatre means she needs to give a speech. Farah is a self-described nomad. "It's a bone marrow thing. Always thinking of the next thing to do. The next place to go ... Wondering which way the river's going to turn if you follow it off the map." Throughout the play they enact together, she remains consistently the most focused of the three, occasionally getting angry at the others for not doing what needs to be done. Colon's performance is somewhere between the others: she gets emotional and even angry, but only when the moment calls for it. It's fitting that she is the first to step into a real light: her characters get frustrated, but they bring revelation.
As to that play: they never name it, but they do have impressive goals when they start improvising it. It will be, they decide, "a play that is truly epic. And classic. And socially relevant. And hopeful. And funny. And well-crafted. A play to chronicle human civilization."
Not too much to ask of an improvised show, right? (Note: Davis's play is not improvised, just the one these three "create" in front of us.) And it does, indeed, "chronicle human civilization." With the help of a rack of clothes they fortuitously find backstage, stage lights that mysteriously start to function, and a running crew that–though never explained and rarely even questioned–sets the stage for each scene with chairs, tables, thrones, mirror walls, and whatever else is needed, they begin with a caveman scene, proceed to one set in ancient Egypt, move on to Atlantis (just before it is destroyed), Africa during the slave trade, the present, and even the future. Each scene is designed to try to pinpoint the moment "where we might've gotten off track" as a species and forgot what Akwasi calls "the need deep within you to survive."
The "improvisation" of the caveman scene gets silly at times, but eventually they all find themselves on the same page, reverently staring at a "new god" who "understands our needs" and "celebrates our desires." This new god (which we might infer is mankind, or perhaps theatre itself) "is yet young in the sky, but he shall, erelong, consume it!"
Between scenes, the three bicker, discuss what they are doing, and talk directly to the audience in efforts to help us to see their points of view. It is in these interludes, when the dialogue and performances are more naturalistic, that we get to know our three resurrectors.
They take us to ancient Egypt, where they are slaves trying to do the impossible: build huge "triangles" (pyramids) out of stone they can't even move. From there, it's on to Atlantis (with two lovely oyster shell thrones) and end times for those who live there. (Let's see: the cavemen died out, as did the ancient Egyptians despite their "triangles," and now the Atlanteans.) As Akwasi tells his fellow travelers, "Everything connects. That's the nature of things. To connect to each other." After the scene, he tells Enoch, "There's a lost Atlantis inside you somewhere. Maybe more than one."
The death of theatre is perhaps most clear in one of the "future" scenes, when Enoch and Akwasi, playing space travelers, come upon one woman (Farah) who represents a whole new civilization. True to "Star Trek"'s "Prime Directive," they cannot interfere or even make themselves known to her. But she fascinates them, and they stand for a long time just watching her as she meditates or prays. She has awakened something in them that they cannot even name. They have become her audience, and understanding her is less important than just being present. As Enoch says, "You just have to embrace it. Use it."
Akwasi tells us early on that he has a fundamental problem as an actor: "I don't know how to bow. I understand the mechanics. But the heart of it escapes me." He knows that a curtain call is an inevitable aspect of a play. "Come hell or high water, hot air rises, light travels at 186,282 miles per second, and when the show is over, we bowin'." But he has forgotten, or never known, the why of it, and he wants to figure it out. "Because a form deprived of meaning ... well that is the saddest story in the world."
These three actors, their director, and designers Sydney Lynne (scenic design), Lily Walls (costume design), Vianey Salazar (lighting design), Michael Huey (sound design), and Michael Corrie (props) take their audience on a compelling, entertaining journey. On the day I saw the play, the audience wasn't much larger than the cast and crew, and that is a shame. I will acknowledge that it isn't for everyone–my husband, for example, did not like it–but if you enjoy solving a puzzle and care about the theatre, you won't find another show that embraces its joys, foibles and mysteries as well as The Art of Bowing.
The Art of Bowing runs through August 6, 2023, for Haven Chicago, at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit havenchi.org.