Powerful Performance Art @ ChicagoShakes

4 Stars out of 4

You might not think that the horrific tragedy at Beslan, Russia, where hundreds of children died in a botched rescue attempt when terrorists took over a school on opening day is the stuff of family theatre. In Brussels, where the BRONKS art house is based, looking at our challenging world and its troubling history through the eyes of a child is completely appropriate and compelling subject material for younger and more sensitive audiences.  Us/Them, now briefly on at Chicago Shakespeare’s Upstairs Theatre  as part of the Big In Belgium series, is BRONKS’s darkly funny, exquisitely crafted performance art piece that processes an unconceivable horror through the lens of childhood.  Writer Director Carly Wijs was inspired by her own eight year old son’s recounting of his version of what happened in the Nairobi terrorist attack in 2013.  She noted that we can no longer protect children from the darker stories of our day, though I contend that based on my reading of Grimm tales and Greek mythology, we “protect” children from the hard stuff only recently in human culture.  

The impossibly young and hopeful Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven begin the work by chalking out the school floor plan across the stage.  They are competitive: each corrects the other’s account.  They are focused on numbers, on minute details and facts.  The amount of grandmothers.  The fact that there were few fathers there.  They portray the setting of bombs with black balloons.  The trip wires divide the space into a precise geometric web.  It was famously hot inside the school where hostages were gathered and many children, deprived of food and water, began to remove their clothes: when Gytha stands nearly bare it is a moment of profound vulnerability that can move you to tears. Or you can allow the precision of the facts and the abstraction of the performers movements to distance you, and allow this all too common story of disempowered people resorting to violence to be heard. The ending comes as a shock, just as it must have to those who lived this story, but there is nothing graphic in this work.  

Us/Them is a meditation on the world today, and the world as it has been, interpreted through a simple lens. It is an important and compelling work, and you only have a little while to see it—it is running at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s Upstairs on Navy Pier until February 3, 2019. For tickets and information go to www.ChicagoShakes.com or call 312-596-5600.