Theater has the power to move us, shape us — to take a moment, or an image, and make it part of our consciousness, forever. That’s something we’ve been missing sorely for the past 11 months.
The initials in the title “R.U.R” — a science fiction play by Czech writer Karel Čapek — stand for “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” which introduced the word “robot” into the English language. The production I saw at Cleveland’s Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival ended with the robot lovers, Primus and Helena, freezing on stage as the lights came up, a neat bit of stage business. I kept turning as I filed out with the rest of the audience, to see if they were still standing there, motionless, holding hands. They were.
That was also 50 years ago, a reminder of the power of theater to move us, shape us, take a moment, or an image, and make it part of our consciousness, forever.
Something we’ve been missing sorely for the past 11 months — those who go to shows, anyway — and it might give a sense of how small a crew that is if you consider the verbiage spent mourning the inability to eat in restaurants versus the scant attention given the near complete loss of Chicago’s vibrant live theater. Not to forget the hole kicked in the livelihoods of thousands of actors, stagehands, wardrobe chiefs, lighting technicians and ticket salespeople.
On-screen live performance just isn’t the same. Since the pandemic struck, I’ve seen three theatrical productions online.
There was a TV version of Jane Austen my wife was watching that seemed tinny and abrasive. I bailed out after 10 minutes. And I tried to introduce “Hamilton” to the boys, but we weren’t in a theater, hadn’t paid $180 a ticket, and the show never grabbed them. After a polite half hour they begged off.
And “The Journey” Thursday night, a one-man show by Scottish illusionist Scott Silven, presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater, which cracked the secret of getting me to try live online performance. They asked. It’s a magic act, not a play, but I don’t mind magic. The last show I saw in Chicago before the world shut down was Penn & Teller at the Chicago Theater in November 2019. A century ago. They were good.
“The Journey” takes place in a single room, and close-in magic works well on a small screen. The audience, limited to 30, is at times projected in the room, and the basic conjurer’s routine of asking questions of volunteers draws viewers in, underscoring the live quality. We’d been asked to bring an object of personal significance, and I brought a fossil trilobite, which meshed nicely — or should that be inexplicably? — with Silven’s theme of home and time and stones, small cairns which were part of the act.
Magic is not theater, but the tricks are usually set in a dramatic context. Before the show the audience was asked to watch a brief film of Silven striding across the starkly gorgeous Scottish coast. Some might find that captivating; to me it was off-putting, in the luxury perfume commercial sense. I would have preferred patter that was more real, heartfelt and specific, to an hour of astral bosh about the myth of Kali. But Silven is a likable young man, with a mentalist’s ability to retain complicated details.
My standard was “Did this take me out of myself, isolated at home in the middle of a dual global pandemic/American political meltdown?” Yes. Would I have felt cheated had I paid the $40 ticket price? Probably not. Would I see another online theatrical production? Absolutely. Does watching “The Journey” online pale compared to being in a theater seat, watching live actors perform “Hecuba”? Absolutely.
The best news is that top Chicago theaters do not seem to be in the grip of existential crisis. You don’t operate Chicago Shakespeare without deep pocketed donors, and they have stepped up. Ditto for The Goodman. Turns out live-streaming free theater can be a business model. The Goodman’s audio play of “A Christmas Carol” had an audience of 100,000 all over the world. Donations poured in. They also made money working with schools and getting out the vote.
“The Journey” runs through Jan. 24, which meshes with the show’s wide-eyed, mystical demeanor because — well, I don’t know how Silven did it, that’s why they call it “magic” — the day after it closes, Jan. 25, is the 100th anniversary of the premiere of “R.U.R.” at the National Theater in Prague. It’s still a wonderful world, if you take time to connect the dots.