The Yellow Wallpaper with Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble Credit: Matthew Gregory Hollis

Months of confinement and isolation inform two introspective, retrospective works on a bill shared by Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble and RE|Dance this November, and one thing is certain: never has an apse looked more like the inner curve of a cranial vault, and our activities within the bone-white walls of Ebenezer Lutheran Church seemed more like the harried jostle of neurotransmitters humming uneasily through a perturbed system. 

RE|Dance Group’s The Attic Room Courtesy Matthew Gregory Hollis

Lanterns flicker merrily then eerily on a patterned rug and a ring of books in RE|Dance codirector Michael Estanich’s The Attic Room (2011). “There’s a map of the world I can see . . . You have to squint your eyes to see it,” says a forlorn and fragile Corinne Imberski, nose and eyes obscured in a mask that makes her look like an owl (designed by Brenda DeWaters). She curls and uncurls like the paper she holds in her hands. They all wear these masks here, and the strangeness of mouths after 20 months of muffled speech makes their beaked and feathered heads even more uncanny. Paper cranes spill onto the floor; a rug becomes an island, then a sinking ship. The dancers speak and yelp, become birds and stairs, dangle on the border between the joy of play and the terror of delusion.

The Yellow Wallpaper and The Attic Room
Through 11/20: Fri-Sat 8 PM, Ebenezer Lutheran Church, 1650 W. Foster, danztheatre.org, $20 advance, $25 at door, $13 students 16+, under 16 free.

Swathes of translucent fabric spill onto the floor for CDE director Ellyzabeth Adler’s The Yellow Wallpaper (2003), adapted from the 1892 story of a woman on a rest cure for a “temporary nervous depression” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The diagnosis and the cure are her husband’s, but the story belongs to the nameless narrator (Cheryl Cornacchione, who says as much with her face and her feet as her speeches). Making movement central to the telling enhances the sense of her suffocation: in the foreground, clipped dialogues occur between the woman and her condescending caretakers (Andrew Kain Miller as her husband John, Ginger Leopoldo as his sister Jennie)—in the background, writhing motion by a silent ensemble (Venice Averyheart, Shalaka Kulkarni, Sarah Franzel, and Adler) forcefully roil into view. 

The casting in this production is standard: the main characters are white, the supporting ensemble, mostly people of color. Yet, in the context of Gilman’s story, rather than reinforce the usual marginalization in social (and theatrical) spaces, this choice broadens and probes the theme of marginalization more generally. With obsessive monologues that describe the colored wallpaper as something sickly, “unclean,” “confusing,” “strange,” and “foul,” uttered within a white church overlaid with the dark silhouettes of the ensemble, a narrative often interpreted as feminist comments more generally on the fear and oppression of anyone defined as “other” in a culture dominated by white men. As a portrayal of the origins of a shared illness, if charity begins at home, so does tyranny. 

Before, between, and after the performances, an exhibition of visual art, curated by Siobhan Kealy, offers more entry points to the evening’s meditation on madness and what true things the mad can reveal.