Since I Suppose
A pervasive sense that you're being watched permeates the enthralling, unnerving pedestrian journey Since I Suppose at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Buy a ticket to the production from Melbourne, Australia-based one step at a time productions and you sign up to be an audience of one, following the story on foot, starting with ghostly images beckoning from the phone you pick up at the show's onset.
About midway through this eerie, ingenious take on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, a mustachioed man on my screen told me to stop on a broken piece of pavement in the heart of the Viagra Triangle (so called for its bar scene, where pretty young things tend to hook up with well-off elderly folk). To the right was a garish neon sign for a sticky-floored porn store and across the street on this bustling Saturday night were bachelorette parties, working girls, and one of Chicago's criminal courts buildings.
As I stood staring at the blinking XXX, the story of Measure for Measure continued. Shakespeare's tale centers on a Isabella, a young nun, and Angelo, the corrupt all-powerful politico who plans to rape her even as he crusades to condemn to death all the city's johns, prostitutes, and so-called deviants. The synchronicity that weaves between the story and the environment is astonishing. It's a thought-provoking experience, to say the least, watching prostitutes stroll the Triangle while you're listening to actors interviewing sex workers.
The mechanics of the show are ingenious: You show up at a Loop Starbucks, and wait for a phone call. The voice on the other end instructs you to turn left, turn right, open this door, go down this hall, and you're standing in the spookily empty, Versailles-on-Acid grandeur of Palace Theatre. A drop-dead gorgeous woman in red swans down a vast staircase and hands you the phone you'll use as a guide for the next few hours. Turn around, and the lady vanishes, replaced by a mustachioed man who turns out to be both a master storyteller and cardsharp.
For the next few hours, you follow the phone-screen's images, which duplicate where you're walking — with a few significant exceptions. On the screen, a woman in a white wimple is walking just ahead of you, then a man with dead eyes and a power suit, then that guy with the mustache. They lead you into the bedrooms of luxury high-rises, stained-glass corridors of empty churches, the cavernous tunnels beneath the Loop sidewalks, and through the deserted hallways of after-hours government buildings.
Sometimes, the cast shows up in the flesh, which is both reassuring and creepy. It took me a long moment to realize that the guy in the alley demanding to know whether I'd prefer instant death or a bad marriage wasn't a homeless man in need of meds, but a cast member bearing further instructions (in a sealed envelope) and whiskey shots. The chimerical nature of the actors makes everyone you pass seem strangely suspect. That bald guy thumbing the pages of Back Door Bonanza — is he watching me? The statuesque woman pointing toward the penthouse elevator — do I follow her?
The synthesis between story and environment is astounding: At one point, you're 18 floors up, reclining on a chaise before a pool that shimmers like gemstones, surrounded on all sides by floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking the glittering skyline. In the headphones: A description of Angelo's corrupt power over all he can see. At another moment, you're in a dim bedroom, instructed to curl up in the plush, billowy folds of an impossibly soft bed. The scene? Angelo's "seduction" of the nun.
The final scenes are mind-blowers involving a blindfold, the implication of tragic violence, and a ride in a black limousine. You wind up in a literally dazzling place that feels dangerous, privy to one final tableau that's as beautiful as it is grotesque.
Walking back to my car along on a stretch of Michigan Avenue I've traveled hundreds of times, nothing looked quite the same. The buildings, the traffic, the Saturday night throngs — they all seemed part of an ancient story. As did I. And that's the profound allure of Since I Suppose.