Staging the unthinkable in Theatre Y's 'Self-Accusation'
Updated: Dec 27, 2019
There are few times I'm at a loss for words when a show has ended. I never have experienced being at a constant loss for words before, during, and after a performance until attending Theatre Y's production of Self-Accusation. The amount of mystery, spontaneity, and jaw dropping yet sincere means of spectacle cannot be overstated in this piece.
Written by Peter Handke as originally for two speakers, this production brings more intention and versatility than the playwright could ever have dreamed of. Under the direction of artistic director Melissa Lorraine and ensemble member Héctor Álvarez, an ensemble of nine brings this riveting journey to life. Chicago serves as the backdrop in a literal sense as the window of The Ready performance space reflects the stores across the street, the beats of this city, and most pointedly, us.
A buzzing pre-show springs into a dance party which slowly motions and fades into a demonstration of the complexities of humankind. There are many stories to behold here. Some are told in seconds, and others change over the course of minutes. It's further elevated by the breadth of unsettling sounds that would make Imogen Heap proud by Ben Kinsinger and stunning, pulsating use of light and shadow work under the design of Rachel Levy. The sooner accepting the unknown is embraced, the quicker you'll find yourself open to seeing pretty much anything unfold over the course of the next ninety minutes.
Kris Tori, Adrian Garcia, Nadia Pillay, Pearl Ramsey, Zahrah Pillay, Howard Raik, Arlene Arnone Bibbs, Ishmael Klein, and Anthôny Battle all jive together to control, disrupt, and share a gyrating narrative. All sentences are spoken beginning with an universal "I", each passing the torch of collective narrator like a game of hot potato with all the intensity and element of surprise of where it will land next. Sentences range from "I learned rules", to "I was supposed to fail to act", to "I became fit for society." The more the play accelerates the more this prose feels natural and hammers in the idea of how much we spend our lives thinking about ourselves.
The play while performed by this fiercely brilliant, breathless ensemble, is ultimately about its audience. Audience members get pulled in at specific moments to witness the action from a different perspective. The window serves as a means to not only see ourselves, but the life that's happening in this room and beyond. Even the cars and pedestrians that pass back and forth outside in their non-theatrical rhythms become part of the narrative by their mere existence. The world is a play, and we are the players.
From being positioned in the perspective, the effect is that sins, morality, and the laws of society are a tsunami that feel impossible to escape from. The text presents life only in absolutes despite our longing for those vague, gray, questioning middles. Following rules isn't always the right choice, but neither is breaking them. And who gets to set those rules and for whom, where, and how long? And there are different rules depending on the setting of work, home, in public, or the theatre. Ones are explicitly communicated aloud while others that we silently know are unspoken. While it can feel a bit like entering quicksand, every train of thought leads you to nod your head in agreement and contemplation. Every sentence uttered is both a question and an answer despite being spoken as a statement.
An important distinction to note is while all of this can feel like a manic migraine, it's a mixed blessing that is commendable of an audience. I've never seen anything like this before in Chicago, and there are few productions I can confidently say that about. To do such groundbreaking work on many levels feels like a master class in storytelling. An ensemble that ranges in age, race, and gender, a commitment to telling international stories and evolving a piece that provides such exuberance, and did we mention it's free? Theatre Y has a policy of free admission, to limit some of the financial burden when investing time and effort to coming out to the theatre.
This play is disturbing, confusing, and unpredictable. It's also humorous, innovative, and inspiring. It's a transformation of the theatrical form and not like a play at all. The nuance of text reflects its form and garners an innate response of feeling like you've witnessed everything, but also nothing in the "traditional" theatrical sense. "What laws of the theatre did I violate?", one of the ensemble members inquires. All of them, and it's a new, necessary creed that shakes up all our preconceptions and needles into our judgment. This perceived cursed form of art in breaking all its laws is a cure for the national stage.
To reveal what definitively happens in this play feels like a betrayal to its nature. It's a secret only to be told by this ensemble and in that sacred space. It'd be like revealing a magician's ways, how Mary Poppins is able to fly, or spoiling the plot of an entire series you were looking forward to watching. This is the most honest, poetically gut wrenching, fun house mirror like look into humanity you won't be able to unsee. Believe in the magic and go.