It’s a surprise to any seasoned theatre-goer to walk into a performance space and see mothers holding their babies. And not wrapped up blankets, or dolls, but actresses with their actual babies. It’s even more surprising when they directly address the audience and ask if there exists a right to bring a child into the world, and not mean it rhetorically, but as an open-ended question. Theatre Y, one of Chicago’s many scrappy theatre companies maintaining the city’s connection to current East European culture, has enjoyed some of its widest acclaim for its productions of András Visky’s Juliet. Their current production is a new one under the direction of Kevin V. Smith, in which Melissa Lorraine reprises her role as Juliet, the playwright’s mother, recounting in an eighty-minute monologue her and her children’s imprisonment in a gulag from 1959 to 1964.
Horror, Sardonic Contemplation, and a Detached Sense of Wonder
Their dog flew up into the air when the secret police shot it. It formed a perfect arch, like something from a French movie, and by the time it landed, they were too far away to hear the mundane thud. It may not have been exactly at this time that Juliet started to think God was using her as a prop in someone else’s Job story. It may not have been when she first saw her and her seven children’s lodgings at the prison camp, which had no floor and so little roof there may as well as have been none at all. But with only a bit of alfalfa to eat each day, it’s hard not to sink steadily deeper into delirium. The other prisoners were unsurprised to learn she and her children had been sent there because her husband was a pastor in a Hungarian church. Now that a fellow prisoner, a doctor, has found that she has a heart murmur, she has started to also think of herself as like Shakespeare’s Juliet, in the moment she woke up in the crypt without her husband, and she wonders if that’s a better way to see herself than as just one of the blessings for the Lord to give and take.
Theatre Y Fits the Whole World into the Self
The set design, by Henry Wilkinson, looks like the interior of a body. There are red drapes everywhere, and dark shadows. Something indefinite that changes colors with Juliet’s moods hovers over the viscera, and the women with children form a chorus in its unseen places. The audience’s benches, arranged in an egg-shape around the stage, are hard and oddly low to the ground, with the first row only a few inches above the floor. Juliet’s costumes, designed by Rebecca Hinsdale, are not the uniform of a prisoner, but alternate between comfortable house wear and a striking black gown. She thinks about death a lot, and not only as something that acts upon her.
A Frank Look at a Dark Place
The course of Visky’s poetic monologue gives Lorraine an opportunity to show her range in a confined setting. There are moments when Juliet is frantic with anxiety; it would be strange if there weren’t, but the play’s power comes from its honesty about the other moments. Juliet is ambivalent about her husband’s faith that got her sent to the gulag—she wonders if God is there at all, whether their conception of benevolence aligns enough to be meaningful. Much as she loves her husband, his religious advice is hard to follow or see the wisdom in. Her clearest memory of their show trial is that she’d never seen him with a shaved head before and hadn’t expected it to be that shape. It also occurs to her that their family love is the regime’s main leverage against them, and God’s as well. In which case, perhaps things aren’t totally out of her power.
Theatre Y hosts talk-back sessions which are, in this author’s experience, essential viewing. Lorraine, who is also the Artistic Director, emphasizes that the purpose of the show is not to make people feel comfortable. (It is unclear whether that statement is meant to be inclusive of the seating.) It’s more about making people feel heard, and a survey showed about half the audience to be Romanian. That’s why Theatre Y performances are free and supertitled in Spanish, and why this particular show has retained a core audience across several different stagings. Visky didn’t tie up his mother’s story with an inspirational coda. Their family was eventually reunited, but that didn’t undo how they experienced things as they happened, and there’s value in getting to share that.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves
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About the Author: Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis has lived in Chicago since 2014 when he started writing articles about theatre, opera, and dance for a number of review websites. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of modernist dramatic literature and criticism. While there, he interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham developing concepts for new dance pieces. His professional work includes developing the original jazz performance piece The Blues Ain’t a Color with Denise LaGrassa, which played at Theater Wit. He has also written promotional materials for theatre companies including Silk Road Rising.
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