Reenacting historic battles onstage is risky. If the cannon blasts and bayonet jabs aren’t real enough, the whole thing comes off looking lame. (Think of the Monty Python sketch in which the ladies of the Batley Townswomen’s Guild simulate Pearl Harbor by pummeling one another with handbags.) So what should we expect when French-Austrian performance collective Superamas makes its Chicago debut with Empire (Art & Politics)—a show that starts with nothing less than the Battle of Aspern-Essling, a bloody 1809 clash between the armies of Napoleon and Archduke Charles of Austria? When Superamas performed Empire in Paris in 2008, Belgian critic Jeroen Peeters described an almost cinematic opening sequence “complete with impressive costumes and lights, but also sickening violence, contempt, racism, lust, rape.” And yet making war look true to life isn’t the point. The good post-modernists of Superamas are out to raise the question, What does a simulation simulate, anyway? The battle turns out to be a scene being filmed for a movie. It’s followed by the movie’s premiere party. Then we see a documentary being made in Afghanistan—and that seems almost real too. Finally, Empire climaxes with pyrotechnics, which may be a fun fireworks display or a dramatization of bombs exploding in battle. What’s the difference?
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