12 hours, 8 acts, one unforgettable experience

Lest you worry all this list writing is keeping me from exploring Chicago, I thought I’d share that in fact, I spent all day Saturday at the theater. Yes, all day.

I started building my lists by researching a lot of “best of…” terms – best museums, best neighborhoods, best theater. That last one got me to Time Out Chicago, and an intriguing review of a show called ALL OUR TRAGIC. Initially piqued by the five stars (who gets five stars from Time Out?), the review goes on to call the production the best play of the year, the experience “another day in paradise.”

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I dug deeper and learned that the show is something entirely unique: the adaptation of the surviving 32 Greek tragedies into one marathon production performed over the course of 12 hours. Yes, twelve hours. From 11a.m. to 11p.m., an audience of about 200 is whisked away on a winding, dizzying journey of life, love, death and madness, stories the world has been telling for millennia. All that, and the Chicago Tribune calls it “a watershed moment” in local theater.

I’d been searching for an exceptional theatrical experience in the city, been waiting to come across some production that would prove me right about the state of the stage here: vibrant, interesting and thriving. I found it all in ALL OUR TRAGIC.

Tickets are steep on the company’s website, a hefty $125 a seat. When you consider that the ticket grants its bearer an entire day of theater – 9 hours of performance, 3 hours of breaks for meals and much-needed stretching – it actually becomes a bit of a steal. (Full disclosure: still slightly out of my budget, I nabbed my ticket via Goldstar for $75.)

The experience of a 12-hour production could fill twelve blog posts, an audience goes through so much over the course of the day. My experience might have started a day or two in advance as I mentally prepared myself for the experience. Without much more than those few reviews to go on, I didn’t know what to expect. A bunch of mediocre actors on cardboard sets in a basement somewhere? A transformative, transcendent piece of art? Turns out it was somewhere in between, a truly impressive production that didn’t quite soar for me but will be the measure against which I compare local theater going forward.

Saturday morning, I took care in deciding what to wear – what’s right for a matinee and an evening at the theater? The forecast calls for 95* weather with a heat index of 106* – what if this place isn’t air conditioned? I settled on a maxi skirt and tank, a light cardigan in tow just in case. I also packed a snack of berries and took coffee with me. Though I did read they serve food and drinks, they also encourage you to bring your own or step out as needed – best to be well energized for the day ahead.

I arrived and made my way in with no problem; performing at The Den in Wicker Park, the space is designed in a sort of half theater-in-the-round, the audience seated along two walls of a rectangular space. Though the theater seats about 200, I’d estimate about 120 were at this production, still quite a crowd for a show that’s already been around a year.

As we waited for the production to begin, I found myself sitting across the aisle from the director, both a welcome and daunting added layer on this day – is he watching to see how I respond? Turns out this kind of familiarity was not uncommon in the crowd, as I learned through intermission conversations both had and overheard that many of those attending had some tie to the show, friends and family of the cast and crew. That’s love, people.

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the chalkboard – a logistical lifeline

Before long, we were off, Prometheus chained to his mountain waiting for the eagle to come peck at his liver. Ushered into the various acts by a trio of young women, a Greek chorus who strum and sing through deaths and track each character on a chalkboard wall visible to the audience (a lifesaver in this massive production, to be sure), before long we were through the first few acts – and the intermissions between both.

The progression of the play could be tracked in one of two ways: either by the death count on the chalkboard (by the end, we’d topped 110) or the people manipulated into various stretches across the lobby. As the day went on, the group of us on this particular ride became more and more familiar to each other and less and less shy about staying flexible and alert in whatever way they could.

The cast clocks in at fewer than twenty hearty souls, each tackling anywhere from three to upwards of six different roles across acts and Greek ages. The deftness with which they distinguish their roles is a feat in and of itself; though several of the cast look familiar enough as they pop in and out of roles, most are nearly unrecognizable in both their appearance and demeanor. By the last third of the production, I found myself checking and rechecking the cast list in the playbill to remind myself which actor had played which doomed character.

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on breaks, the audience is welcomed to move about the space freely

And doomed they are. Our dinner break came around the 6p.m. hour and I was already feeling spent by the sheer anguish of the events on stage, with five hours of production still to go. Mothers killing sons, friends killing friends, tormented souls killing themselves… these tragedies really do have it all. The chalkboard filled up quickly with names of new characters, and just as quickly names were crossed out as their lives ended.

The show moves at an exceptional clip, energy that stayed high even as the hours wore on. It’s written and staged in a creative blend of modern and classic, the lines at times feeling like something out of Shakespeare and alternately quipped off with a modern snark. Similarly, the staging shifts seamlessly from timelessly ancient to contemporary business suits to retro hemlines and hairdos. In one exceptional section, I found myself feeling like I was watching a live Baz Luhrmann production a la Romeo and Juliet, the juxtaposition of classic prose against modern presentation so striking.

By the last intermission, I was beyond curious to see how this whole crazy thing would wrap up, partly because I was ready to call it a night but mostly because HOW do you end an epic of epic proportions that doesn’t leave your audience feeling like they’d seen enough tragic endings to want one for themselves? The answer, according to ALL OUR TRAGIC, is to opine eloquently on the many lessons of these 32 plays with a surprising, albeit refreshing and welcome, optimism.

The impetus for creating my Chicago Lists was to discover a city I didn’t already know, to get me out of my apartment and into this world-class metropolis I’m calling home again. ALL OUR TRAGIC came about quickly – the time between discovering it, buying a ticket and seeing the show was just about a week! – but it couldn’t have come at a better time. You have a lot to offer, Chicago, and if AOT is any indication, we’re gonna get along just fine.