Review: Us/Them Explores Chechen Terrorism with Energetic Pas de Deux in CST Belgium Series

Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven (photo by Murdo McLeod)

Pink Floyd sang about “Us and Them”:

Haven’t you heard it’s a battle of words
The poster bearer cried
“Listen son”, said the man with the gun
There’s room for you inside

BRONKS Theater expresses similar confrontational sentiments in its production of Us/Them, the third and final presentation in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Big in Belgium series, running through February 3. The bright, energetic and brief production recounts and deconstructs the 2004 Russian school siege by Chechen separatists. Over 1,100 adults and kids were taken hostage, and a third were killed.

Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven play as children on the almost barren expanse of stage, where they chalk out the school’s layout, then enclose the playing space with a literal string and an Ariadne’s thread of a tale, their POV of the tragedy against a green wall of empty coat hooks.

The pair are adept dancers, executing a continuous pas de deux around and through the string maze, like movie spies avoiding infrared, as they tell of the fathers who rushed to the scene, of the dehydration and delirium of the captives, the way the place of learning was eventually detonated. The rope prison also evokes Jacob’s Ladder, an elegantly simple way to construct the unfortunates’ way to heaven. Balloons are bombs. Words are weapons.

In the memoir Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt told of his squalid childhood through the eyes of a child to mitigate the horror. Writer/director Carly Wijs and her creative team similarly ponder “why terrorism” through innocent eyes.

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Before the upstairs show, L’après-midi d’un foehn Version 1 (Afternoon of a Foehn) ran in the downstairs Yard space as part of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival. A solo performer, in a pea coat, knit cap and tabi shoes from France’s Compagnie Non Nova, didn’t get the memo about Chicago’s plastic bag ban, and purposefully cut up some colorful disposables and taped them together into human shapes.

A circle of floor fans, speed-controlled from a box on the side, inflated then animated the wee beasties with handles as legs, who tangoed around the floor and leapt into the air to oscillate eerily synchronous to Claude Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun.”

In addition to being anthropomorphous, the plastic people also took on a jellyfish vibe when accompanied by background sea sounds.

The short piece took American Beauty’s plastic bag scene a step further, added a bumbershoot to gather the deflated soldiers, and echoed that observation that “sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world.” The result was clean and complex, surprising and endearing.

Us/Them runs through February 3 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave. Tickets and info online and at 312-595-5600.

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Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.