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There’s a whole lotta politicking (and more) going on in ‘Fight Night’

Aurelie Lannoy (from left) Angelo Tijssens and Charlotte De Bruyne star in "Fight Night" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. | Yvon Poncelet Photo

Aurelie Lannoy (from left) Angelo Tijssens and Charlotte De Bruyne star in "Fight Night" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. | Yvon Poncelet Photo

With a name like “Fight Night” and the inclusion of live audience voting, you’d expect a play like this one to be a raucous viva voce affair. And yet it’s anything but. As the most recent installment in Chicago Shakeseare’s season-long “Big in Belgium” series, this absolutely invigorating show from the company Ontroerend Goed comes slyly dressed in the buttoned-up garb of sobriety. All the better for letting the inherently mad contradictions of unfettered democracy come oozing out of the seams.

True to its name, the play does adopt some of the trappings of the boxing ring. The stage, for one, is a single, raised white platform with a pair of TV monitors hanging overhead for displaying the voting results. But the show’s stark, black-and-white design (lights by Lilith Tremmery, costumes by Sophie De Somere, sets by both) flaunts a kind of studious anti-flair. The scene doesn’t so much call to mind a boxing ring as it does “Charlie Rose.” When the evening’s host Angelo Tijssens (also credited as co-writer along with director Alexander Devriendt and the cast) enters to make his introductions, he is met by an old-fashioned microphone that descends from the ceiling. But instead of bellowing “live from Las Vegas” he instead speaks calmly, if a bit impishly. In his checkered suit, he looks more like a professor than a boxing announcer.

‘Fight Night’
When: Through Nov. 4
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand
Tickets: $38–$56
Info: chicagoshakes.com
Run time: 80 minutes, no intermission

And indeed, it’s a needling, penetrating civics lesson that’s on the menu. As the audience enters during the pre-show, they are all handed small electronic voting devices. Before introducing the candidates (who all enter in black, hooded boxing robes), Tijssens walks audiences through the voting procedures, which double as a demographic poll. Voting silently and anonymously, audience members reveal their general genders, ages and incomes, with the results displayed for all to see.

And then there are the candidates themselves, five in all: Charlotte De Bruyne, Aaron Gordon, Aurelie Lannoy, Jeroen Van Der Ven, and Max Wind. The audience is initially asked to vote for their favorite, based on nothing but their looks. After those results are shown, the candidates speak, and the audience votes again. By the time everything is said and done, the candidate with the least votes is asked to leave. And they do. At the end of show’s brisk, 80-minute run time, only one candidate is left standing.

(On the night this critic saw the show, it was De Bruyne who was first to go, but not before hilariously reciting, sans context, the entirety of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 absurdist masterpiece-slash-campaign ad, “The Bear.”)

Without giving too much away, “Fight Night” interrogates why exactly we vote (and choose candidates) the way we do. The cast members all share Tijssens’ dry, conversational tone — like NPR’s “Fresh Air” being broadcast from inside Sartre’s “No Exit” — which highlights the processes’ inherent hypocrisies. Take, for example, Tijssens’ musing that “everyone loves an underdog, but nobody like a loser.” Voting shares for each candidate can vary wildly from one vote to the next, subject to the audience’s own capriciousness. Even when we’re making our most informed decisions, it’s still mostly gut instinct. This frightening mood is perfectly captured by Cameron Goodall and David Heinrich’s throbbingly ominous score.

“Fight Night” takes its time, walking the audience through several permutations of the democratic process. After the initial round, we are asked vote purely on “the issues” without knowing which candidate supports what. Rather than using actual social issues like healthcare or immigration, the play substitutes personal views, which gets uncomfortable fast, but is still thrilling. And even then, do the issues actually matter when it comes time to eliminate another candidate? For this one performance at least, they did not.

Despite all its puckish charm, there is one way in which “Fight Night” gets a little lost in translation. Its parliamentary focus on the subtle terror of majority rule plays somewhat differently in a country that’s having to wrangle with the opposite. After all, the 2016 election was won by the candidate who garnered less of the total popular votes than his losing opponent.

Perhaps Ontroerend Goed could return and partner with the The Neo-Futurists (with whom this show shares a deep experimental kinship) to do a show about that. Surely, the majority of audiences would approve.

Alex Huntsberger is a local freelance writer.