The Chay Yew era at the Victory Gardens began in earnest Monday night with "Ameriville," an intensely politicized and energetic performance collage that starts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and ends up as a poetic indictment of all manner of alleged American sins — from the proliferation of firearms to past racism to the ongoing poor treatment of immigrants. And although one should perhaps not read too much into one show, even a splashy first show, here was a choice of style, material and level of political engagement that seemed designed to convey a sea change in the artistic direction of a venerable Chicago institution.
"Ameriville," directed by Yew and performed by the South Bronx-based Universes ensemble is, for sure, a long way from a Jim Sherman farce or a Douglas Post mystery, to name two of the members of the former Victory Gardens Playwrights Ensemble — an ensemble that now finds itself listed in the program as the Playwrights Ensemble Emeritus.
Influenced by hip-hop, slam poetry, jazz and politically conscious oral history in the Anna Deavere Smith tradition, and performed by a tightly cohesive group of New York-based performers, "Ameriville" is more something you would expect to see in New York's Under the Radar Festival, where it indeed was performed a year ago, following a 2009 premiere at the Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, than at the Biograph, where Victory Gardens programming long has been dominated by traditional plays from mostly Chicago-based writers.
Such a change is not necessarily a bad thing — Chicago, for example, does not really have a company that produces and presents all kinds of performance work with the eclectic, youthful and politically engaged footprint of, say, the New York Public Theatre. If Yew were to move things more in that direction — and "Ameriville" implies such a move — that could be interesting. The trickier question will be how much of the existing, loyal Victory Gardens audience comes along.
Universes has been doing a version of "Ameriville" for nearly three years and its experience pays dividends: the performances are rich, strong and arresting. The cast — made up of Gamal Chasten, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, William Ruiz and Steven Sapp — sing as well as they speak and move. Yew's production features clean, detailed transitions, and performers like Sapp (who is formidable) know how to go from an angry shout to a quiet, contemplative moment. It is in the moments of such sudden contrasts that "Ameriville" is at its best.
Some might think that Hurricane Katrina has been more than adequately explored. I'm not of that mind, given the largely preventable loss of life (preventable in so many ways) and the crack in the flimsy facade of our advanced society, with its assumed safety nets, that the aftermath of the hurricane created in so many of our minds, let alone in the souls of the people who were there. It is indeed a viable, even a commanding, metaphor for some of our current problems, expressed through the constant poetic refrain of, "How high is the water?"
And the piece not without humor. "What do you think about urban renewal?" goes one line in a scene set in a comedy club. "I haven't met him yet," is the reply. At another moment, a question is asked: "If a turtle has no shell, is he naked or homeless?" That line proves surprisingly sticky.
"Ameriville" becomes less intense and specific, and thus less effective, as it rages further away from the event that sources its anger and its direct, metaphoric implications. Thematically, the piece over reaches. One can see why these politicized artists see this hurricane as indicative of so much that is wrong, but any kind of predictably congealed point of view is the enemy of a theater piece like this, which packs political potency not in the articulation of every liberal grievance but in the revelation of the scale of the human consequences of failures in leadership.
One wishes there were a few more moments spent with the ordinary people of New Orleans, not least because these actors bring them to life with such empathetic eloquence, and fewer flashy set pieces.
But that's "Ameriville," intended to be a shot across the bow of a nation. And a theater company.
When: Through Feb. 26
Where: Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes