Chicago Actors Ensemble

A few years after the “ban the bomb” movement fizzled, we started to receive warnings of the approaching catastrophe of the worldwide population explosion–the “population bomb.” In the mid-60s Americans regularly heard terrifying scenarios: there would soon be more people alive than the sum of all those who had lived before, and the teeming hordes would slowly cannibalize their own planet.

Then a strange adjustment occurred. Though our species continued to proliferate like an overactive culture in a petri dish, the population-doomsday scenario was replaced by more immediate threats–the “greenhouse effect,” the eradication of the rain forests, the depletion of the protective ozone layer, acid rain, the increase in the numbers of homeless, the decrease in the number of plant and animal species, famine in Ethiopia, the poisoning of our air, aquifers, lakes, and oceans. The population bomb may have been too scary to look at for long, or the decline of the baby boom may have eased fears about it, but all the more-publicized crises are just symptoms of that unfashionable threat. The population bomb continues to tick.

It takes someone familiar with the sight of lots of people crammed into a few rooms to expose the problem that never really went away. It takes a Polish playwright. Based on an essay by Tadeusz Rozewicz, Birth Rate is Kazimierz Braun’s highly stylized, metaphorical evocation of the emergency–“too many people, too little time,” the prospect of seven billion people crowding the planet by the year 2000.

Because Braun wants to deliver his warning to a properly cowed audience, Birth Rate is done in promenade, like Remains Theatre’s Road and Braun’s own Dzuma (The Plague), which was also produced by Chicago Actors Ensemble. That means that unsmiling tour guides dragoon the audience, which marches around in orderly single file, watching symbolic depictions of a species multiplying beyond its bounds.

Originally produced by Poland’s Teatr Wspolczesny, this new adaptation and U.S. premiere was written for the Chicago Actors Ensemble’s fourth annual Free Theatre Uptown program and codirected by Braun and CAE director Rick Helweg. It is a sort of totalitarian spectacle, an avant-garde carnival of calamities, whose sideshow is its own audience being herded from one vivid cautionary metaphor to another. In nearly three hours of occasionally inspired, often pretentious stage pictures we learn over and over how more is really less. And how less is much, much better.

Braun’s “theater of communion” began as we entered the building and had our names taken down by a grim, uniformed tour guide. Eventually we were led in small, docile groups to a door through which a “keeper of the gate” let us enter at 12-second intervals. In the middle of the room we saw a small-scale depiction of a train compartment surrounded by 61 dolls. Audience “volunteers” were told to slowly place the dolls, each of which we were told had a ticket and needed to reach its destination, in the too-small compartment. The demonstration turned out to be a preparation for what would later be the same scene done life-size (much like the famous stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, or the phone booths that fraternities loved to cram to bursting in the 50s).

In disciplined groups–we were all too easily intimidated–we were taken by polite neo-fascist ushers up and down various flights of stairs. The destination was a “gallery of death,” from which a supposedly frozen corpse suddenly rose to proclaim the dangers of a crowded planet–while a hysterical mourner tried to push him back into the cryonic chamber. A guide strongly suggested that we have our money ready to buy beverages, but when we reached the lobby the concessionaires announced that they were out of beverages.

An adjoining “gallery of life” contained wild artworks constructed from congealed junk by Teatr Wspolczesny’s Krzysztof Zarebski–a mattress that is splitting in two under a mannequin, a half-open refrigerator packed with test-tube baby parts, and, hanging from the ceiling, dolls stuck in rapidly melting ice. The sexual vibrations from audience members were supposedly being sent to Washington for analysis, and the gallery contained two University of Chicago doctoral candidates intent on discovering a connection between erotic entertainment and the pressure of population as they watched a bag lady and a stripper contort. As we finished this leg of the tour we were asked to read aloud Rozewicz’s description of what happens when the metaphorical railway compartment fills to the bursting point and produces a panic.

Next the audience, after being solemnly warned not to masturbate, was funneled into a black-box theater to watch a perplexing mix of apocalyptic mime and turgid expressionism in which the train passengers acted out their bad dreams or tried to escape. A glacial enactment of the farewell scene from The Cherry Orchard (the destruction of the trees as one more example of an encroaching species) was followed by repetitions of a supposedly harrowing moment in Lord Jim in which the hero thinks words spoken to a dog were meant for him. A celebrity arrived, surrounded by reporters wielding flashlights, to proclaim that people who live in a packed planet should replace material values with spiritual ones; she was quickly abandoned by the press.

After these cryptic episodes, Braun’s frustration about the play apparently proved too much for him; the actors took over, reenacted the bit with the stripper and bag lady, and launched into a speech about how we will only “enter the kingdom . . . when what is inside will become as that which is outside, when the mountain becomes the valley, when man will no longer be man,” etc–the usual stuff gurus love to spout.

Finally, we returned to the dilapidated chamber of life, where we watched the train compartment self-destruct–as two dancers clad in white leotards cavorted above the death carriage. Lovers exchanged sweet nothings until engulfed by a horny soldier, a formal old man, and a pregnant woman, who made things worse by giving birth to one child after another. As all heedlessly piled into the finite space, the forced civility as each tried to preserve his “space” gave way to seething mass hysteria. (The compartment is depressingly like the railway cars that carried millions of Jews, socialists, gypsies, and homosexuals to the Nazi death camps.)

The 22 toiling actors struggled out from under the heap to wander among audience members and recite–in 19 tongues (including American Sign Language)–the supposedly redemptive speech about entering the “kingdom.”

So many of these moments impose without touching us. By far the best one in this overblown and overlong play is the compartment scene. The Chicago Actors Ensemble definitely earn their name: employing the most radical acting rapport I’ve seen, they slowly turn a civilized group of passengers into a human swarm desperate to break loose; this picture is not only worth a thousand words, it actually makes sense.

Still, many more stage pictures in Birth Rate, however elaborately shaped, however terrific in concept, only emptily restate the play’s monomaniacal message–or don’t communicate at all. Intoxicated by the apocalyptic raptures, Braun’s scattershot surrealism inevitably comes off as grandiosely self-indulgent. You could leave Birth Rate unable to connect anything you saw with birth control, abortion rights, or sex education.

Even so, you have to credit the ensemble for daring to offer such blatantly nonescapist fare–and, through September 17, all for free. No summer fluff, Birth Rate packs a polemical punch–over and over and over.