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The Edwardian Mysteries (a Phantasmagoria)

Mystery Caravan

at the Performance Loft, Second Unitarian Church of Chicago

By Carol Burbank

In the years I've been attending interactive theater pieces, I've never experienced anything quite so brilliant, eccentric, and challenging as The Edwardian Mysteries (a Phantasmagoria): this interactive possession ritual explores spirituality with a smart-ass wit and attention to historical detail that left me breathless. Last year's Babette's Feast is the closest parallel I can think of, but that genteel adaptation was banal by comparison. I can now testify to a new mode of theatrical enlightenment using director Jeff Grygny's watchword: "Let there be no misunderstanding!"

The long-running spoof Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding caused a stir when it hit the stage in the 1980s, but now interactive works have become commonplace in Chicago. These shows mean big money for local companies, and audiences know what to expect: stereotypical ethnicity, slapstick comedy, and mediocre dinner fare at a high price. Murder mysteries, courtroom dramas, and the popular comedy Flanagan's Wake continue the tradition of performers' connection with the audience, who can participate as they choose, chatting with the actors or even dancing with them--or just laughing at them. It's good fun, but usually the improvising actors are the only participants to break a sweat.

The Edwardian Mysteries follows none of the standard formulas. It's performed in a theater, not a rented hall or "real life" setting. The stage becomes an altar and a drawing room at once, a homey but metaphysical place--the first of many contradictions that give the piece zing. There's a delicious array of snacks and wine, and the audience members are honored guests drawn out respectfully in conversation and served graciously by their eccentric hosts. Add a reasonable ticket price and an intelligent, unpredictable, fantastical sense of play, and you have an event as wonderful as it is mysterious.

The framework is strategically simple, allowing for a complex, meandering journey through the radical spirituality of mystics like Krishna-murti, the magician Aleister Crowley, the poet William Butler Yeats, theosophists Anna Bonus Kingsford and Alice Bailey, the spiritualist Madame Blavatsky, the artist Kandinsky, and assorted dadaists. The audience leaves the Performance Loft building after a brief, campy prologue, passing through a sketchy, hurried view of the world of the dead. Then we return to the space, which has been transformed into a spacious drawing room lit by candles with a playing area framed by an altar and the cheese table. The effect is somewhere between a literary salon and a church.

But above all, this is a site for ritual. The first section is a seance, calling the spirits of the dead into the room to possess the cast, dressed in whimsical, carefully detailed costumes to fit their historical characters. The rest of the evening is devoted to lectures, performances, incantations, initiations, and cleverly staged struggles between the massive egos gathered here. The intent is to educate and entertain simultaneously, and Grygny accomplishes both with the help of his skillful cast and an increasingly curious audience.

The evening is divided into beats, and each beat is unique. Elemental spirits enter in a cloud of smoke shot with light. The dadaists perform a raucous choral poem by Tristan Tzara, accompanied by a duck call, a marionette, a dance, shrieks, and general cacophony. The classic battle between good and evil is enacted by Yeats and Crowley, who use light sabers a la Star Wars in a battle to the death. The sage Krishnamurti speaks to the Theosophical Society about the source of freedom. Three leading mystics hold an ecstatic tea party.

Aware of the overwhelming density of these mystic citations, Grygny builds several breaks into the evening. During these 15-minute intermissions, the audience mingles with the players, flirting, eating fruit, drinking wine, and asking questions. The dadaists were particularly playful. Jean Arp chose one audience member to coddle with frequent gifts of fruit and giggling confidences. Others earnestly shared their stories or encouraged people to become initiates, a brief ritual that marks the end of every intermission and starts the next performance segment.

As a participant I felt safe but excited, swept into each event, each introduction. The actors deserve a lot of credit, enabling me to believe that I was speaking to the great William Butler Yeats (William Konsoer) or the wicked iconoclast and dadaist dancer Sophie Tauber-Arp (Amy Kristensen). I knew that Crowley was really Grygny, but he addressed me with such solemnity and arrogance that I felt compelled to question his Crowley's authority. The twitching, obsessive, lunatic antivivisectionist Anna Kingsford (Tracy Coppola) wrung my hand until it hurt in her eagerness to communicate. My initiation--a simple ritual that provoked laughter and applause--helped me join in even more playfully.

I was sorry I couldn't meet the entire cast before the final ritual, which released the spirits back to the world of the dead. The performers had clearly done extensive research and could introduce us to their characters' lives and philosophies, and their performances required stamina, discipline, and enthusiasm--they must have collapsed after this two-hour marathon. I went home buzzing with ideas about the nature of free will, the place of love, our inherent potential for self-destruction, the necessity of total abandon and of dreams, the disciplines of self-control and isolation, and the ability of mankind to adapt and survive.

These long-gone charlatans and priests, poets and painters, iconoclasts" and hacks gathered and departed to support Grygny's political intent: to provoke a spiritual understanding of the world. Their ideas are once again current, as we face the millennium with New Age movements and fundamentalists alike trumpeting our doom and our yearning for transcendence. Why reinvent the wheel? Grygny wryly suggests that the dreams of the past may be a key to our future.

This is an intelligent romp through the ridiculous excess and resonant insights of great thinkers. A large, obsessive, abundant experiment in living theater and theatrical living, The Edwardian Mysteries brings the ecstatic philosophies of the past into the intellectually xenophobic present.

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