There were two openings in one Tuesday night as the Chicago Shakespeare Theater simultaneously inaugurated The Yard, its remarkable new venue on Navy Pier, and also tested many of the bells and whistles on its freshly minted stage by presenting the U.S. premiere of “The Toad Knew” — an absurdist circus-theater piece by France’s James Thierree and La Compagnie du Hanneton/Junebug.
‘THE TOAD KNEW’
When: Through Sept. 23
Where: The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier
Tickets: $48 – $88
Run time: 95 minutes, with no intermission
First, The Yard, an ingeniously morphable, $35 million, fully enclosed structure that now sits almost invisibly beneath the familiar white tent of the former Skyline Stage. Designed by Chicago’s Gordon Gill and the British firm of Charcoalblue, it is an elegant, industrial-style beauty. And while it will probably take at least a full season of shows before audiences will see its many possible shapes, it is enough to say that for this show — which uses the maximum 850-seat configuration featuring nine interlocked, tri-level movable towers — it is mightily impressive. And while this time around there is a proscenium-style stage rather than the familiar thrust of CST’s Courtyard space, the overall horseshoe shape of the seating is the same, the movable seats are solidly planted and comfortable, and the acoustics and other technical aspects are state-of-the-art.
Now, for “The Toad Knew,” whose title remains something of an enigma to me, despite the arrival of a giant, balloon-like puppet of white silk that makes an entrance near the end of the show. The characters in Thierree’s fantasia, all of whom seem to be in search of human connection (or disconnection), are continually thwarted and discombobulated to the point of madness, spend most of their time on stage in a state of compulsive (if artful) spasm and tics.
To be sure, a number of these sequences, during which this muscular frenzy reaches fever pitch, are extraordinary, whether as solo turns or involving a crazed gestural exchange between two or more characters. But the whole thing becomes exhausting and needlessly repetitive well before the show’s 95-minute running time draws to a close. And often it feels as if Thierree has just strung together a series of clever bits, but doesn’t really know when to stop, or how to develop them in any satisfying way.
It all starts as an exotic singer (Ofelie Crispin), cloaked in a red velvet cape, performs a sultry song with incoherent lyrics. Eventually, a red velvet curtain is pulled into the wings to reveal a stage that looks like the interior of a grand French villa that has fallen into total ruin. It still has electrical current, however (the lighting design by Alex Hardellet and Thierree is magical), and a giant, fractured Art Nouveau-style chandelier is pitched above the stage, ready to become the perch for Thi Mai Nguyen, the phenomenal dancer and aerialist who is one of the principal reasons to see this show.
Down below is Thierree, a rumpled, bearded, “I just want to be alone” poet type, who memorably climbs a slowly rising spiral staircase to the sky with balletic grace. Thierree has a seemingly more pragmatic pal (Herve Lassince) with whom he engages in rapid-fire, often comic non-verbal arguments. And nearby is a young woman (Sonia ‘Sonya’ Bel Hadj Brahim), dead asleep at a tattered antique piano. It turns out she is very much alive — perhaps just exhausted by what becomes her manic and largely futile pursuit of Thierree’s attentions. Brahim, too, is a remarkable dancer and tireless physical clown. The show’s sixth character (Samuel Dutertre) is a big bear of a man in an overcoat who makes periodic visits, and is part victim, part ogre.
Thierree is a drolly brilliant clown/dancer whose physical agility and expressiveness is clearly built into his genes (his parents were circus artists, and he is the grandson of Charlie Chaplin). But here he could unquestionably have used the help of an editor/writer to frame a more satisfying narrative for this almost entirely non-verbal work in which the beauty and virtuosity of the movement (and “movement” does not begin to suggest the use of the body here), is undeniable.
The engineering involved in “The Toad Knew” is extraordinary, with its complex tangle of rigging cables, tubs of water and a beautiful twist of delicate lights that suggests Nikolas Tezla, that electrical genius, might be watching. Sadly the whole thing wears you down as often as it enchants.