Garage Rep: "See What I Wanna See"
The month of March is greeted by the city of Chicago and its resident theater companies with much enthusiasm. In addition to the traditional anticipation of warmer weather and longer days, March is also the time when companies prepare to offer the remaining shows on their production calendars.
This month and spilling over into April, Steppenwolf Theatre Company is proud to produce its annual Garage Rep series, a programming staple that celebrates Steppenwolf's history as an artistic upstart. As Associate Producer Jacob Padron states in press materials: "With this year's Garage Rep, all three shows have a unique voice but their methodology, imagination and commitment to company are reminiscent of Steppenwolf's early storefront past. This year's rep includes our first ever chamber musical."
That chamber musical is offered in the form of "See What I Wanna See" from Bailiwick Chicago. With words and music by Michael John LaChiusa and direction from Lili-Anne Brown, I am sorry to report that this high-concept piece stumbles badly.
As an avid consumer and critic of the city's theatrical offerings for four years now, as I viewed "See What I Wanna See," I found my mind wandering over and again to the current season of NBC's Broadway-themed drama "Smash." On that television show, the creative team and producers behind a Marilyn Monroe-centered musical are currently struggling with the same conflict that besets the Bailiwick project.
Sumptuous costume design from Samantha C. Jones and inventive scenic layout from Lizzie Bracken are paired with wonderful musical compositions that come alive in the hands of talented performers. Yet all of these assets are not nearly enough to overcome the problem of a book that makes no sense at all.
There are three vignettes that comprise the story, such as it is, of "I See What I Wanna See." A film-noir, whodunit-style tale of lust and murder precedes the anecdote of a crisis of faith and a communal, religious hoax. These adventures are bookended and separated by brief scenes charged with sexual energy, relating to the entanglement of two ill-fated lovers.
I dare anyone present to explain to me the thematic elements or imagery that unite these stories. I have spent three nights pondering in a good-faith effort to admit the possibility of my own misunderstanding, but I've run out of excuses for the production. It just doesn't make sense.
And that's a real shame because "I See What I Wanna See" is gifted with beautiful songs from LaChiusa that are performed adroitly by a company of actors called upon to assume multiple guises. The stunning and talented Sharriese Hamilton and Danni Smith alternately assume the roles of femme fatale (and in Smith's case, wizened matriarch) to convey the dangers inherent in sexual politics and gamesmanship. I wish they had been given better material with which to work.
The performers with Y chromosomes display the same admirable talent and commitment to material that ultimately lets them down. I'd like to single out Evan Tyrone Martin (The Janitor/A Reporter) for special recognition. What a commanding voice!
The chamber music for the show is supplied by an orchestra ingeniously hidden behind an opaque screen that separates the sound from the action. This interesting setup is the brainchild of Lizzie Bracken. My companion for the evening, who I must own detested the production as a whole, nevertheless beseeched me to give this element a shout.
But folks, that's all I've got. Should the Bailiwick decide to remount Michael John LaChiusa's "I See What I Wanna See," which made its off-Broadway debut in 2005, more attention must be paid to narrative synthesis. I had to go to the show's program to discover that the buttressing tale of the ill-fated lovers is intended to reflect feudal Japan. This is inexcusable.
"See What I Wanna See" runs through April 21 at The Steppenwolf Garage, 1624 N. Halsted St., Chicago, IL. For info or tickets call 312-335-1650 or visit theSteppenwolf Theatre website.