A History of Everything - The Greatest Story Ever Told

Ensemble member Nathalie Verbeke

My favorite exhibit at the Field Museum consists of a series of hallways that lead a visitor through the history of the world beginning with a single cell and ending with Homo sapiens.  The Belgian theatre group Ontroerend Goed’s deals, although in a much more entertaining way, with a similar subject matter in their A History of Everything (now playing in the Chicago Shakespeare's Upstairs Theatre).  Working in reverse, the seven member cast begins with a touching soliloquy discussing the possibility of the universe contracting upon itself at a future date.  The narrative (which is influenced by the work of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins) then moves backwards from the present to the first organisms to grace Earth.  This is accomplished mainly through chalk art, simple set design and props, musical interludes, healthy doses of humor, and costume changes.  Given the technical challenges in squeezing over a billion years of evolution into a ninety minute time frame, the production never feels rushed and is filled with a surprising amount of detail. 

Cast members re-arrange political boundaries after a world war

For me the strength of the performance was in its treatment of the early 21st and 20th century.  Presidents and other important historical figures seemingly fall backwards into each other and the audience is presented with such choice images as an iPad regressing into an iPod.  Much of this era is also illuminated through often overlapping sound bites of both the trivial and profound.  Only a few tragic moments of the modern century (such as 9/11) are treated with more somber dignity.  Always present throughout the performance is an oversized segmented world map that the actors first rolled onto the stage then proceeded to walk over, spill water on, and litter with war markers in an effort to highlight natural and political history.

The ensemble cast of A History of Everything

Helping the performance along were the everyman likeability of the extremely talented Australian and Belgium cast members.  Charlotte De Bruyne and Tahki Saul especially stood out for their ability to narrate key events with a sense of vulnerability.  When midway through the performance a naked Charlotte De Bruyne takes the stage to symbolize the innocence of the pre-Columbus Native Americans (she is covered only by her own two hands), the audience truly feels her virginal bashfulness.  Zindzi Okenyo also excels in several spots dealing with the role of race in world affairs. 

Tahki Saul narrates evolution

Zindzi Okenyo (far left) discusses race (Tahki Saul at center with Charlotte De Bruyne to the right)

Toward the end of the performance, after man had long since left stage and our common ancestors are swimming deep in the ocean; the actors concealed their arms, faces, and other recognizable body parts. Huddled at first together, they ultimately separated and then left the stage one by one and I felt myself saddened by the only possible conclusion of this long backwards march.  Maybe it was my coming birthday, but the empty stage emphasized in me both the miracle of evolution and the uncaring forces of the universe that make it possible.  When at last the lights went on and the actors took their bows, I felt glad to be applauding them whole and self aware.

Donning crowns, pre-20th politics are demonstrated

Bottom Line:  A History of Everything is recommended for both the serious scholar as well as the mediocre science student.  Although possessing perhaps one too many lengthy musical interlude, its wit and creativity make for an entertaining night.  For more information on this and other shows, visit Theatre In Chicago.

Photos by:  Brett Boardman

 

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