Since I Suppose. One Step at a Time Like This, for Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Chicago, Illinois. Aug. 28-Sept. 21. 2014.
Reviewed by Regina Buccola.
Early morning, an e-mail arrives with directions to a specific street corner, delivered via a funny YouTube video. It is laugh out loud funny, creating the sense that the unusual, “immersive” theater experience of which it is the first part will be a fun adventure.
The e-mail confirms the recipient’s cell phone number. At the appointed street corner, at the appointed time, two homeless men take it in turns to harass you in a manner that almost leads you to believe that they might be in on it, might be actors conscripted to harass you, except that they seem so authentically unwashed, so authentically mentally ill. Then your phone rings. You are queried by name – yes, that’s me, you say. You are asked if you see various landmarks in your vicinity. You do see them. You are asked, by a smooth, gentle, feminine voice, to walk towards the twinkling lights of a downtown Chicago theater. You are silently motioned through the door by a box office attendant – or, perhaps, an actor playing one – when you arrive.
When you step inside the theater, a blaze of lobby light, your feet sinking into the deep plush of the carpet, you are struck by the contrast with the sunshine and sidewalk you have just left. Even more striking is the contrast between the homeless men who have so recently been your companions, and the lovely, evening dress and heels-attired woman, her brown hair swept back in a tight chignon, who, smiling at you, making eye contact the whole time, descends the curved staircase to join you in the theater lobby.
She seats you on a padded bench in front of a small table. On it, there is a Motorola Moto G smartphone equipped with headphones, a lanyard, and a Velcro strap you can use to lash it to your hand. She makes sure you can navigate the device, which will be your guide for the
remainder of your pedestrian-based theater experience of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. You navigate the technology successfully. You are given an envelope and instructed to put it somewhere safe, somewhere that you will be able to retrieve it when you need it, later. You are given a number to put in your own smartphone contacts, in case anything . . . happens. So far, so good.
Then, she blindfolds you. “Do you have a brother or a sister?” she whispers in your ear. You happen to have both. “Who are you closer to? How far would you go to save them? Would you sleep with a politician? Would you kill for them? Do you support the death penalty?” All reasonable enough questions, particularly given the play you are about to see, in pedestrian-based, smartphone-guided adaptation, but somehow managing more decisive blows to your gut, whispered, as all of them are, into your ear, while you are blindfolded, in the lobby of an otherwise closed downtown theater.
The blindfold is removed. The lovely woman is gone; seated across the small table from you now is a man – a man you recognize from the YouTube video that told you where to begin your journey – wearing a ludicrous fake moustache, a baseball cap, and dark aviator sunglasses. He pulls out a dirty deck of cards. He uses it to introduce you to the principal players in the drama that is about to unfold for you, or, perhaps, happen to you. He takes you to a staff exit from the theater, instructing you to play the first track on the smartphone you’ve been given.
A video begins, starring the nun that you have just met via a card trick. Silently, in her white robe, veil and wimple, she beckons you to follow her; she has been filmed on the street right in front of you, as if Siri had been transformed into a seventeenth-century, two-dimensional nun. You watch, in the video, as the passers-by stop to stare at her, a walking anachronism, vaguely surprised, when you look up, to find that they are not staring at you. For now, you blend in, with your smartphone and headset. Later, though, when you are instructed to stand against a wall in a pair of chalk-drawn shoeprints on the sidewalk while you learn of the location of a public gallows in Chicago, and someone taps you on the shoulder, proffering a neatly-creased one-dollar bill from behind a wrought-iron gate across an alleyway and asks if you want to go to a dirty bookstore in the vicinity, or just hear about it, and then sells you your own ridiculous fake moustache to wear (for a dollar) – well, then people will stare at you, too.
Your route is disrupted at one point by the raising of a bridge over the Chicago River. You follow the first substitute head in the play, the metaphorical one, as he roams the gritty urban streets to which you have been guided, laugh as he tosses down the cardboard container for his pizza slice because it is such a simple character-defining gesture, but so apt.
You follow directions that lead you to a seedy bar where a drunken patron staggers over to demand that you put your favorite song on the jukebox. His moustache is real; the one on the man seated opposite you is fake. You are blindfolded again. You are asked if you prefer to suck, or bite.
Another contrast: directions lead you to a posh hotel. You ride a mirrored-door elevator to a high floor. You are seated on a terrace
overlooking the river and the lake, stocked ice bucket by your side, a towel, sunscreen and floppy straw hat provided for your use. Then you are asked to ride the elevator to a higher floor. Later, after you lie in a fluffy white bed next to the substitute head, who will make eye contact with you the whole time, you will be sent onto the balcony, realize that you are looking down at the terrace where you lounged earlier, see that it has a green roof just next it, and that you have had to pass through two locked doors to get to the room where you had to lie with Angelo. Although you have taught this play many times, you will think, for the first time, of what it must be like to be Marianna, knowing that as she knows Angelo’s body, he thinks that he is knowing Isabel’s. You have thought before of the quasi-rape perpetrated on Angelo, who is willing to have blackmail sex with Isabel – a quasi-rape of its own – but no kind of sex with Marianna. You have not thought before of what it would be like to be Marianna, perpetrating this act. You think about it, now.
You leave the posh, climate-controlled air of the hotel for the white heat of the parking garage. You are blindfolded again. A very convincing head is placed first in your lap, then at your feet, in what feels like a plastic garbage bag. You are shut in the back of a container truck for one last card trick. When you are invited to step out of the container, you find yourself on the stage of a theater in between productions, random props strewn about. The stage lights come on, temporarily blinding you. They are dimmed, as lights come up on the balcony, where the nun and the man in the bad fake moustache play strip poker. She loses. Badly. Measure for Measure – as a play, and as a sentiment – affords no winning hands.