We’re kicking off Giving Tuesday early this year! Your donation today will be matched up to $10K, doubling your impact! If you donate $50 today, the Reader will receive $100.

The Reader is now a community-funded nonprofit newsroom. Can we count on your support to help keep us publishing?

The Apocalypse

Strange Ways Repertory Company

at the Bulgarian Orthodox Peace Church

By Justin Hayford

No one can blame those who hate theater in America: millions of dollars are spent each year to train us to hate it. We’re all encouraged to fall prostrate before television and film. And it seems theater matters only insofar as it conforms to the rules of television and film: when it diverts or reassures us or features celebrities, preferably naked. Above all, if a play is going to show up on our national radar it has to generate serious revenue. And since good theater rarely does, most viewers are left bewildered by the unpredictable, unprofitable plays they’re dragged to by overemotional theater friends–you can’t even take them home on video.

So what hope is there for a messy, demanding evening of poetic brutality performed by seven unknowns who remain steadfastly clothed all evening? Worse yet, Strange Ways’ debut production, The Apocalypse, is showing in a church basement on the far western fringe of Chicago, on a tiny stage that seems designed for school pageants. There’s no set, no falling chandelier or descending helicopter, only an antiquated step stool plunked in front of the stage to hold a slide projector. For the better part of 90 minutes the actors talk on and on about the horrors of war, then dare to end without a neat, uplifting conclusion. You can’t even pay ridiculously high ticket prices and hobnob with fur coats to help convince yourself you enjoyed the evening.

Who would want to sit through this? Well, anyone who endures Hollywood or Broadway productions and walks away feeling intellectually insulted, even polluted. Anyone who would rather be challenged than entertained, provoked rather than reassured. Anyone who still believes that theater can offer truth instead of hype.

The Apocalypse is no masterpiece. Produced in meager surroundings on a shoestring budget, this three-act is uneven at best and embarrassing at worst. Director Tzvetana Dontcheva, who also compiled the stories of war atrocities that make up the bulk of the show, aims for a stylized staging–actors walking slowly in unison, a death figure wrapping people in her black velvet cloak. But much of it looks plain silly in such cramped quarters, with only a handful of lighting instruments, haphazard costuming, and actors with rudimentary movement skills.

Yet by the end of the first scene, the magnificence of Dontcheva’s unfocused, half-realized vision has given the proceedings a grace and majesty rarely seen in theaters charging five times the admission. The show begins with two sets of lovers gazing into each other’s eyes for several minutes, their hands orbiting delicately around each other without ever touching. The ache of lovers who’ve been separated is palpable, even though the distance between them is a matter of inches. It’s a simple moment, executed without much flair, forcing an audience to be patient and attentive.

Then the lovers begin to speak, expressing their dread at parting in luscious stanzas credited to poet Damian Damianov. “Don’t go. Please don’t go,” each intones over and over. “Don’t leave me for the morning, which is wise and merciless,” one pleads. “It is cruel to be alone when met by the familiar sunset,” explains another. These heartbreaking exchanges go on for a good ten minutes, the actors barely moving, speaking their words slowly and deliberately as though imploring time itself to slow down.

Dontcheva puts her audience right where they need to be: if you don’t slow down and listen carefully to The Apocalypse, it will seem a one-note rant. After the lovers depart, she thrusts us into the thick of World War II. “June 22, 1941,” an actor recites. “Before dawn, while the peaceful villages of Ukrainia were still dreaming, the Nazi military stormed into the Soviet land.” Then her cast tells stories of Nazi atrocities–officers hanging families for no reason other than to scare the neighbors, a mother and child burned alive, another mother having to pick which of her two children will be murdered.

We’ve all heard about war atrocities; perhaps we’ve even heard our fill. And it’s easy to feel manipulated when you’re asked to imagine peaceful Ukrainian villages stormed by ogrelike Nazis. But Dontcheva’s poetic introductory passages give the evening a lyrical sense of displacement. No doubt the stories the actors tell are true; an emigre from Bulgaria, Dontcheva originally staged these stories in her homeland in 1984. But they’re also placed in an almost mythic context; as it’s put in one monologue, the Nazis “shot at the budding roses. They shot at the sea and stars. They shot at all the tender sunrises.” Tellingly, the lovers who open the show–and who are metaphorically obliterated by all that follows–are nameless, iconic figures. Physical bodies are mutilated, but it seems that the ultimate victims are the ideals of beauty and love.

Dontcheva maintains a tight focus through the play’s first two acts, stitching together tiny episodes rich with specific detail. But at the end of the second act, the horizons of the piece suddenly expand. The actors repeatedly cry, “Remember, mortal memory,” then call up images of barbarous murder throughout the ages, from Nero’s Rome to the My Lai massacre. In a sobering shift, the Nazi genocide becomes mundane, one in a long series of atrocities on the time line of human brutality. It seems that human nature, not any particular political ideology, is the ultimate source of corruption. As the actors ask several times, “Who will we put on trial now?”

The performers don’t try to convince us they’ve lived the lives they describe; to do so would be an insult to the memory of those who suffered. Instead they simply tell others’ stories. We don’t have to endure a lot of acting to get to the truth: the performers allow themselves to become emotionally involved in their stories without forcing things. The result is an unapologetically relentless and honest evening.

In the play’s third act, the kind of crystalline imagery that gives the first two acts such power disappears. Dontcheva moves into a purely lyrical approach, introducing a white-clad figure meant to symbolize unrealized human potential who spars with more cynical, black-clad figures who despair over the human race. Such metaphysical musing seems ungrounded and undramatic in comparison with the specificity of the first two acts.

Perhaps someday Dontcheva will have all the resources she needs to fulfill her vision of The Apocalypse. But even in the play’s current, muted form, her voice is an urgent one. While no producer will ever make a dime on this play, while Entertainment Tonight will never deem Dontcheva as important as the Olsen twins, this is theater that matters. It forces us to look into the darkest pockets of our history and our natures and offers no easy solutions. Dontcheva’s uncompromising inquiry is as thrilling as it is troubling, reminding us, in the words recited late in the show, that maybe we’re bigger than our own despair.