Theater Review: US/THEM (Chicago Shakespeare)

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by Lawrence Bommer on January 24, 2019

in Theater-Chicago,Tours


It’s a probably thankless and certainly unsettling undertaking: Us/Them is an hour-long performance piece by two young members of the Belgian troupe BRONKS. It dares to depict the 2004 Beslan school siege and massacre from the point of view of two child victims: One survives the take-over by 35 Chechen separatists. The other does not. Hosted by Chicago Shakespeare Theater, this is the third presentation of enterprising Belgian ensembles following BigMouth and Fight Night.

Employing a back wall with grappling hooks, a cat’s cradle of ropes depicting bullet trajectories, black balloons and a chalkboard on which to scrawl information, Roman Van Houtven and Gytha Parmentier hurl themselves into recreating the normality of Beslan life, then the emergency that changes everything.

As must never be forgotten, the Chechen terrorists took 1,148 adults and children hostage on a hot summer day, planting bombs which they had to carefully keep from exploding and succumbing to a botched intervention by the imbecilic Russian military. Hurling incendiary weapons and tear gas, these “rescuers” ended up killing 334 people, mostly children.

As written and directed by Carly Wijs and created with Thomas Vantuycom, Us/Them, as the title implies, contrasts the unconditional innocence of the captive kids with the unseen menace of the adult kidnappers and cops. With acrobatic abandon, these young actors (who are nonetheless notably older than the actual casualties) lurch into their own dances of death. Overlapping each other’s urgent testimony with infantile eagerness, they describe the layout of their School No. 1. Afraid to leave anything out, they can also suddenly sink into silence as they recall the unspeakable and the unshowable.

Unable to grasp the literal ugliness of what’s engulfed her, Gytha’s girl poignantly imagines a giraffe who rides to her rescue. They hold up their hands in mock surrender. They reenact their captors’ intricate attempts every two hours to put pressure on the bombs to keep them from detonating. They take a pathetic pride in how long they were able to not go to the bathroom (until they “did”). She repeatedly faints from the heat. They conjure up three different endings for the slaughter, including a happy-ending fantasy and a James Bond-like caper conclusion. Finally, the toddlers express their amazement at becoming famous on YouTube for all the wrong reasons.

An adult version of the events could hardly escape gallows humor or simulated purity. But BRONKS’ scenes come from “the mouths of babes.” Doubtless, this purported encounter between innocence and evil involves dangerous speculation. Not even a film recording (and there’s been at least one thorough documentary) can convey the mindless horror of this atrocity, let alone the denial kids instinctively invoke as temporary protection.

It’s not that the frantic and frenzied choreography of Van Houtven and Parmentier, rushing about in the throes of tragedy, trivializes a vile outrage.

But it’s equally treacherous to speculate on how children cope with calamity. The reactions we see on stage are, no question, only a few of the given responses to carnal chaos. Still, for cutting through complacency and activating anger, Us/Them remains invaluable. In effect, it’s a theatrical exorcism for an unforgivable crime against humanity. The silence of these lambs indicts us all.

photos by Murdo McLeod and FKPH

BRONKS Theatre for a Young Audience
part of Big in Belgium—Chicago
Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare Theater
800 E. Grand Avenue on Navy Pier
ends on February 3, 2019
for tickets, call 312.595.5600 or visit Chicago Shakes
for more tour dates, visit BRONKS
for more Chicago shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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