Chicago Actors Ensemble

At a time when inspiration seems in short supply, and fear, timidity, and the desperate pursuit of big box-office receipts threaten to stifle the spirit that put Chicago theater on the map, Chicago Actors Ensemble never fails to give me hope. Not only does this company have a predilection for tackling difficult projects–for example, bringing Heiner Muller’s nearly opaque texts to life–but more often than not its productions are more interesting, entertaining, and intellectually stimulating than the pabulum being served up by other theaters in the hope of snagging a few more suburbanites (who might otherwise blow their cash on The Phantom of the Opera).

Even when CAE’s productions are less than successful–their completely out-of-control version of Dario Fo’s Archangels Don’t Play Pinball and their ponderous and confounding production of Heiner Muller’s Volokolamsk Highway–they are never artistic failures. There is always something–some image, some scene–that remains embedded in the brain long after the play ends. For example, the moment in Volokolamsk Highway in which a party bureaucrat goes raving mad as she circles a committee table while shouting increasingly incoherent orders.

Of course, no production begun in the spirit of pushing the limits of theater or exploring what can and cannot be brought to the stage can ever really be a failure. The phrase “complete artistic failure” is reserved for meek theaters that set their sights low and still miss. Besides, it does no one any good to fault a theater for having the courage to see how far a farce can be pushed before the genre’s inherent tendency toward anarchy turns to absolute chaos (Archangels Don’t Play Pinball). Or at what point bombarding the audience with verbal and visual imagery about 50 years of political oppression in East Germany (Volokolamsk Highway) becomes too much.

Happily CAE’s best work needs no critical explanation. Their recent successes–Birthrate, Dzuma–the Plague, their deconstructed Macbeth–managed to be at once very “alternative” and wholly entertaining theater, the kind of shows that pleased both those hoping to be diverted and those hoping for something more than diversion.

Chicago Actors Ensemble’s current production, part of their annual summertime free theater series, is a rock opera adapted from Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck–a work as inspired, ambitious, and artistically successful as the best of their recent productions. Developed by Hilary Mac Austin and the Chicago Actors Ensemble and told entirely in song (music by Tom Yore), Red Tango takes Buchner’s story of Franz Woyzeck, a poor German soldier driven to madness and murder by his hard life and his common-law wife’s infidelity, and sets it in present-day South Africa. The story translates quite well to that setting–thanks in no small part to Mac Austin’s talented cast, all of whom are both capable singers and fine actors, and to Shanesia Davis’s terrific choreography. Buchner’s emotionally charged yet coldly unsentimental text also seems ideally suited to rock opera.

Hilary Mac Austin and Tom Yore’s faithful adaptation of the story follows beat for beat the twists and turns in Buchner’s work, even stumbling at the same points in the story: Woyzeck’s confusing conversation with his superior officer at the beginning and his equally baffling dialogue with his doctor, who, according to an introduction to the play I read, is using Woyzeck as a human guinea pig–a fact so obliquely referred to in the play that a friend who didn’t read the introduction I did missed it entirely. The second act, which focuses on Woyzeck’s insane, murderous rage at the world, is much easier to understand than the first.

Red Tango begins with a gloss of sorts, a speech by Heiner Muller about Woyzeck given on the occasion of his being awarded the prestigious Georg Buchner prize by the German Academy for Language and Letters. Mueller’s speech, or rather his clotted mass of opinions and prophecies, is dedicated to Nelson Mandela, which explains its inclusion. It’s quite thrilling, if you have the patience to sit through sentences that make no apparent sense (“Woyzeck lives where the dog is buried, the dog’s name: Woyzeck”) on your way to Muller’s more apocalyptic and oracular pronouncements: “When the Sun is in its Zenith, [Woyzeck] will be one with our shadow and . . . History will begin. Not until History will have happened will our shared destruction in the frost of entropy or . . . in the nuclear lightning, be worthwhile; the destruction which will be the end of all utopias and the beginning of a reality beyond mankind.”

Excerpts from this speech are woven throughout the play, to underscore moments in the story and to reinforce the parallels between Woyzeck’s oppression as a German peasant soldier in the early 19th century and the oppression of CAE’s black Woyzeck in South Africa today. (“Woyzeck still is shaving his captain, eating his prescribed peas, torturing Marie with the torpor of his love. . . . In Africa he is still on his Way of the Cross into history, time doesn’t work for him anymore.”) The fact that these excerpts are delivered by the only two whites in the cast, from the position of a speaker’s platform towering above the main playing area on the stage, only accentuates the racial and class differences in South Africa.

The result is a fascinating, many-layered work, with the intelligence and emotional depth of an opera and the raw populism of rock ‘n’ roll. Exactly the sort of fearless mixing of high art and popular culture that made Chicago theater the envy of other theater communities. Would that all of Chicago’s theaters were as brave and inspired.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Martin.