Tilikum @ Sideshow Theatre

3 out of 4 stars

Playwright Kristiana Rae Colón imaginatively spotlights America’s harsh sociological realities and relevant environmental issues in Sideshow Theatre’s world premiere of Tilikum. Under the direction of Lili-Anne Brown, this production navigates through environment advocacy, moral integrity and cultural respect. 

The story follows a strong young bull orca named Tilikum, who was plucked from the ocean to star in theme park whale performances for large crowds. Heavily based off of the real life Tilikum and whale entertainment parks of the 90s-2000’s (mainly SeaWorld), Colón does an excellent job illustrating a very prominent and important topic of animal abuse, while also touching on cultural appropriation and complexity of empathy in America. In a note from the playwright provided in the playbill, Colón explains that this is an abolitionist play. There are individuals out there that are passionately advocating for animal rights, while being blind and/or passive to the plight of fellow man through our nation’s laws are still flawed, voiced unheard and empathy is used flippantly. 

In 2016, Tilikum was developed as a part of the Sideshow’s annual The Freshness Initiative where a Chicago Playwright is invited to develop a full-length work with the organization. The play is definitely thought-provoking, I struggled to find these themes and the balance between historical interpretation and larger modern context without reading the context of the Note from the Playwright. The real Tilikum was captured in 1983 off Iceland’s coast and his relationship with trainer Dawn Brancheau in the early 2000’s is contrasted with subtle blends of a Tindr reference and other choice details that blurs the line between past and present, animal and human, but perhaps this is the point overall? To make the audience reassess what they think they know, what’s presented in front of them and begin to make parallels beyond this unjustly captive whale and into the sociological issues we still face today with race, politics, cultures and understanding. 

The production team’s execution of creating a dynamic space in an intimate setting was incredible. William Boles’ attention to detail blends animal consciousness and human consciousness. The downstage tier mimics being inside of a pool complete with ladder and tiled siding, something that you wouldn’t normally see inside of a whale enclosure due to the simple fact that tiled siding is an aesthetic part of landscaping not a practical one, particularly if it’s holding an animal. 

Tilikum was the largest orca in captivity and is beautifully humanized through Gregory Geffrard’s powerful performance. Geffard’s emotive eyes and spell-binding cadence really hones in on the playwright’s poetic words on freedom. You can’t worship walls and be free writes Colón. The focus on the body and language really drives this piece. Izumi Inaba’s costume design furthers this idea of a blending lines of definition through urban and traditional styling. White chalky face paint is used to depict the orca’s distinct skin markings, while also signifying native cultures around the world that use face paint for ceremonies, religious traditions and more. Geffard’s mohawk dreads are interwoven with white, as well as are the three musicians playing the other female orcas in the theme park. The urbanization comes with the character Tilikum’s diction and the muscle tank style hoodie. These visuals contrasted against uniformed characters working for the theme park. Matt Fletcher plays a stunning example of misogynistic corporate commercialism at it’s best as The Owner of the animal theme park. Fletcher’s emphasis and delivery honed in upon all the worst aspects of America’s lack of empathy for not only its attitude towards the environment and animals that we have obviously seen in recent years, but moreover the attitude towards other humans. 

Jared Gooding (lighting design), Victoria Deiorio (sound design), and Paul Deziel (projections designer) all did a stunning job further transforming the space with the auditory and visual experience. Gooding’s use of dappled varied lighting and subtle color cues were not heavy handed, which is wonderful when working with a play that has such a dramatically different setting. Deiorio utilizes whale calls and overlays additional backing tracks to really submerge the audience into the waters of Tilikum’s enclosure. On the topic of sound, the music was one of the best decisions that this play had. Coco Elysses (composer, music director), Melissa F. DuPrey (composer, musician), and Joyce Liza Rada Lindsey (musician) sit upstage not only as the rhythm section, but as the live characters of the other female whales at the theme park and only communicating through the use of their drums. This instrument use mimics whale communication through deep tones, but keeps the beat throughout the work. 

The real life Tilikum became notorious for his involvement in the deaths of three people. While orca attacks are rare on humans, it is important to remember that at the end of the day these majestic large apex predators are wild creatures and should be shown respect. This play illustrates this idea of respect transcending from wildlife captivity and mistreatment to indigenous people and other societal groups that are at odds in this turbulent political climate. A wonderful thought-provoking production that will have you leaving the theater with more than just a tail-splash to the crowd.  

TILIKUM runs now through July 29th at Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. in Chicago. Tickets are currently available at www.victorygardens.org, by calling (773) 871-3000 or in person at the Victory Gardens Box Office.

Mary Crylen is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She is an alum of Southern Illinois University of Carbondale with dual degrees in English and Photography. She possesses a sincere passion for the arts and believes zeal shows through work. Follow her on Twitter!