Magical Worlds @ ChicagoShakes

4 Stars out of 4

This month Chicago added a new theatre to Navy Pier: the recycled tent of the Skyline stage has become The Yard, a year round multipurpose venue added to the artistic buffet ever on offer at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.  The Yard provides the Chicago Shakes signature seamless theatre going experience for a would be audience member, and frankly, unless you wander around the outside of the Pier, you aren’t even aware of the new theatre’s visually arresting and yet underutilized past.   From the stairs up to the “old” Chicago Shakespeare lobby,  you turn left and you enter a minimalist glass walled lobby looking south on the lake, then slip through the sleek entryways to the seating galleries. It’s a venue looking forward to the future, as artists rethink the live experience, but you won’t necessarily be aware of the endless flexibility of the Yard, unless you are a theatre tech geek or you take a tour. This ultimate custom configurable venue is a game changer: the interior of the theatre is set this season to go through 5 iterations, changing with each show.  The gallery seating towers can be reconfigured by a few stage hands, and the theatre , like a lego construction for performers, can be rejiggered to proscenium or thrust, or in the round, with audiences from 150 to 850 accommodated.  This allows Chicago Shakes to basically rebuild the theatre for any type of performance.  The inaugural performance, kicking off this season’s A World’s Stage series, utilizes the 850 seat configuration with a proscenium stage which feels surprisingly intimate.  Despite the thrill of being the first audience in a new space, the theatre does what a venue should do: it provides the setting for the work and does not call attention to itself—it supports the production.  And what a  production it is!  James Thierrée’s latest oeuvre The Toad Knew is a shimmering visual feast that immerses you in a world of imagination. 

The 90 minute experience with no intermission begins with a luscious red velvet curtain hiding the stage.  A statuesque singer (the exquisite Ofélie Crispin) enters, and merges withthe  curtain. She is literally illuminated. The curtain dances out revealing a space that crosses a Tardis with Jules Verne. A woman is suspended from the ceiling above.  A life in this created world begins: with the singer variously entering and exiting and hovering on either side of the stage singing into a 1930’s radio microphone.  Meanwhile Thierrée, clearly the ringleader, served by Hervé Lassïnce, a kind of steampunk valet, relates as a kind of older brother to the jittery hair tossing Sonia ‘Sonya” Bel Hadj Brahim.  There is a very funny bit where he keeps touching parts of her which fall off, and then they have an intriguing conversation in movement.  Thierrée’s work is labeled Nouveau Cirque, and it’s an amalgam of dance, mime, acrobatics and spectacle that defies easy labels, and pretty much ignores narrative.  If you ask me what the show is about, I can’t tell you.  But you cannot miss this show. Like old fashioned circus, it must be seen to be believed and understood.

The visual feast of light and color and texture, the compelling and constantly evolving sculpture suspended in the space by wires, the glass aquarium that is mermaid pool , wash station and fountain will keep you looking hard at the ecosystem on stage as if it is a moving art piece.  And then there are the characters which live out their lives and relate to one another as humans do. Somehow the story here is existential, a Godot without words.  There is a pathos to the encounters which unwind like the yarn of a story but without subject or conclusion.  There is a bit with a violin that is played then attempted to be discarded. There is a hanging stairway to the heavens.Frequently you will be amazed at the specificity of all of the performer’s movements where they can crack a joke with their bodies, and then they repeat it, riff on it, and it becomes funnier.  Except for the singer’s lyrics, there is no actual language in the work. There is compelling and meaningful gibberish which everyone understands on both an intellectual and visceral level. Perhaps our politicians would become more palatable if they learned this gibberish.  The beauty of vagueness of a narrative is that it leaves the audience with the freedom to create meaning.

There are many wonders in this show: the pond/pool/fountain, the sound design by Thomas Delot, Alex Hardellet and Thierrée’s mystical and evolving lighting design, a tin plate armadillo and the final Toad, a gigantic gossamer fantastic creature that nearly crawls into the audience and swallows a character bringing an end, too soon, to the show. The Toad Knew is only playing for 5 performances, ending this Saturday, so beg borrow or steal a ticket and get to the YARD of Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier.  For tickets and information go to  or call 312-596-5600