If your taste runs to small theater companies where you can sit close enough to see the actors sweat, then why not join the cast onstage or even backstage for a wholly interactive production? It would be hard to imagine an experience more intimate than the one afforded by Genesis Ensemble’s current offering, The Rest Unknown: how to live and how to die.
Part performance art, part visual art, the piece was inspired by artist/writer Maira Kalman’s book The Principles of Uncertainty. Six players lead a dozen audience members — not the right word: guinea pigs, perhaps? — on an experiential tour that threads its way back and forth across three storefronts on a western stretch of Lawrence Avenue in Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood, with maybe a local taqueria thrown in for good measure. Those willing to go with the flow will be rewarded.
As whimsical as The Rest Unknown is, it focuses on no less than life and death. The energetic performers — Amanda Jane Dunne, Kat Paddock, Annie Perry and Lindsey Barlag Thornton with Jake Carr and Sergio Soltero — devised the show along with director Libby Hladik, and each appears to be personally invested in it. Their engagement and spontaneity make up for less than polished acting, if indeed what they are doing can be called acting. It’s really more like living, with heightened awareness and the goal of inspiring their audience to examine the familiar in new ways.
One of the delights of the production is re-entering a storefront space that in a few minutes’ absence has been transformed with props into an entirely new space, with the players using the storefronts as their playgrounds. One of the spaces serves as an art gallery, with work by Rachel Buck, Kristin Taylor, Hao Ni, Lauren Hilty, Ashley Lamb, Hannah Manocchio and Christalena Hughmanick. The pieces, which range from paper art to graphite sketches, will be available for purchase after the show finishes its run. Several of the works allude to motifs that pop up throughout the production.
The players do not limit themselves entirely to the storefronts, either. Participants may hear from a cast member in character across the street or around the corner on Milwaukee Avenue. Although the scenes change frequently — signaled by a cast member ringing a bell — not much walking is required.
What can those attending expect? To be surprised, which is more than half the fun. The opportunities for interaction are ample but never forced. Attendees may find themselves dancing, drawing and recording voice messages. They will often be asked simply to observe, to look closely and then look again. They will be invited to ascend to “The Map Room,” a loft space adorned with maps from medieval Italy, the CTA and a personal remembrance from Maira Kalman’s Russian-born mother that depicts New York City as the center of the world.
Climbing the stairs to “The Map Room” felt to me like being asked up to a child’s tree house. What next, I wondered. Will we be asked to tea? Yes, indeed. One of the storefronts became a cozy tea shop, where we sipped tea and ate honey bundt cake (Maira Kalman’s recipe, included in the program — the troupe takes turns baking the cakes each week) while watching the performers enact a vignette about the French Revolution.
Between the puppet show, the singing and the socks, The Rest Unknown asks the question: How do we go on, knowing that we’re all going to die? “Find distraction in art,” suggests one player. For those seeking it, The Rest Unknown provides plenty of distraction in art.
Genesis Ensemble:The Rest Unknown: how to live and how to die
March 16 - 31
Fridays at 8 pm
Saturdays at 1pm, 3pm & 5pm
Meet at storefront 5344 on Lawrence Ave., Chicago
Tickets: $10, minimum age: 12
Purchase at Brown Paper Tickets through Genesis website: genesisensemble.org
Photos: Heather Moats