The American Revolution Is Not Just for History Buffs Any More

The American Revolution by Theater Unspeakable has come to Chicago’s Greenhouse Theater Center with a new take on history, one whose spirit and cast of characters tell big stories about epic events on the smallest of stages, a 21-square-foot platform. This seasoned show has made the rounds around the USA for five years and finally is making a stop in Chicago, the town of its birth, featuring an immensely talented cast.

Theater Unspeakable was founded in 2010 by Marc Frost (the show’s director), who also co-founded Physical Fest with his wife Alice DeCunha. At the heart of both the festival and Theater Unspeakable’s work are the principles of devised physical theater, an art form that owes much to clowning, pantomime and Jacques Lecoq’s methodology. The American Revolution is no exception, as if focuses on the whole body of the performers as a means of storytelling and expression. While it doesn’t necessarily exclude verbal language, movement is more expressive than in most theater, pulling inspiration from dance, circus and puppetry.

This rendition of the American Revolution is neatly packaged, cramming all of the well-known players (and even some of the bit players) from Washington to Samuel Adams and beyond on to that 21-square-foot platform where the story unfolds like some devilish game of Twister as each of the seven performers moves around, over and under the other, using one another as props, forming desks, flags and cannons as easily as they embody soldiers and historic figures. With all of the twisting and morphing happening, it might seem as if the birth of democracy could get confusing, but with a laser-like attention to line and plot, the cast is able to focus our attention on the character or action that is most important at any given moment, and not without huge doses of humor. Leaping from Boston accents to British accents, the cast manages to eke out several story lines, following George Washington’s rise to power, Benjamin Franklin’s appeals to France, and even some of Thomas Paine’s revolutionary vision.

While the history lessons are straight out of revolutionary history class, with the majority of time spent with the founding fathers, it is clear that the creators have given some thought to the narratives of the less privileged that existed at the time, namely that of women, enslaved people and Native Americans. There are several stand-out moments when enslaved person and personal assistant to George Washington, William Lee appeals for his freedom after having fought in several wars for Washington. Thanks to the performer Jeffrey Owen Freelon Jr.  (who plays both Washington and Lee) it isn’t lost on us that although Lee’s freedom was ultimately granted, it wasn’t until after Washington died.

Historically and with tone, The American Revolution has struck the right balance, treating the events and subjects both with respect and wit, as when John Hancock shocks his co-signers with his audacity by signing his signature super large. These moments don’t steal from the meaning of the events, but they do contextualize them in contemporary terms and make the audience complicit in understanding that history is a highly curated process. Although there were perhaps even more opportunities to address the neglected in history than were taken—and though women, enslaved people and Native Americans nonetheless were carefully recognized, their lack of representation in history books in school settings begs for more than a walk-on role to widen the narrative in the long run.

The American Revolution combined with physical theater-style storytelling is riveting. It will appeal widely for its rigorous and humor-filled peek at our past to history buffs, school children and families but also has appeal to all Americans who will recognize great highlights of the revolutionary period (the fording of the Delaware River, the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Boston Tea Party, to name a few).

The American Revolution runs through November 11 and then will leave Chicago on tour. See it at  Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets are $30, $20 for military, industry, seniors and students, with special school performance dates listed.

All photos courtesy of Theater Unspeakable. 

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