When Dennis Zacek stepped down last spring after 34 years as artistic director of Victory Gardens Theater, his job went to Chay Yew, a theater artist with no previous Chicago connection but plenty of credits at august venues like the Public Theater and the Manhattan Theatre Club. "I was very attracted to [Victory Gardens] and to Dennis' legacy," Yew told the Tribune's Chris Jones the day the announcement was made.
Yew's debut Victory Gardens show has just opened, and it makes you wonder what exactly it was that he found so attractive about Dennis's legacy. Under Zacek, the theater formed a playwrights' ensemble and produced new plays by its members and others. That was pretty much the essence of the thing. The output was inherently hit-and-miss—every few years you had to sit through the latest anachronism by James Sherman. But you might also luck out and get an early look at a breakthrough script like Kristoffer Diaz's The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, which ran at Victory Gardens in 2008 and became a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in drama.
Yew assured Jones that his Victory Gardens would continue to be "about new works," and yet he's chosen to introduce himself to Chicago with Ameriville, a show that premiered at Louisville's Humana Festival in 2009 and has been touring like mad ever since. True, Yew not only directed but helped develop Ameriville—he didn't do the developing here, though, and he didn't do it now. All things considered, Ameriville's relationship with Victory Gardens is pretty much the same as the relationship between, say, American Idiot and the Ford Center/Oriental Theatre downtown: it's a traveling production putting up for a while on a local stage.
Not that it's impossible to appreciate on that account. Rather like American Idiot, Ameriville is a musical with a lot to say about homegrown alienation and a raucous way of saying it.
Created by its four cast members—Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, Gamal Chasten, and William Ruiz, known collectively as Universes—Ameriville opens the polemic with a look at Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. We see weathered wood and the shimmer of water. There's a call-and-response song about the advancing flood—four feet, eight feet, ten feet, more—that's reprised throughout the 100-minute piece, with the level always rising higher. Air Force One flies overhead yet never touches down. Condoleeza Rice goes shoe shopping. "Anybody seen my mama, country, life?" a victim says.
But that's just for starters. Before long the critique opens out to cover practically everything a 99 percenter might think to be pissed off about, from health care to global warming, fracking to Walmart. The point of view is lefty-underdog, and the approach is often comic. A bit about the Chuck-a-nigger-out Investment Group, grabbing bargains in the name of urban renewal, is cringingly funny.
Passages like that eventually get drowned, however, in a flood of strident, ultimately noisome lecturing. Projections tell us what we already know: "Every three hours, a teenager is killed by a gun," "45 percent of Americans don't believe in evolution." Old horrors like the KKK and lynching are referenced, weirdly, as if they still constituted an active threat to the nation. Starbucks is invoked disproportionately, until it begins to read like a convenient code for "white" and "middle class" and "enemy." The cast of Ameriville perform with phenomenal skill and presence, combining a clear sense of conviction with the polish that comes of frequent touring. But the show begins to come across as a superficially genial diatribe. It condescends to its audience, then seems to turn on it, growing scattershot and finally tedious.
There's definitely an element of courage in all that, but I didn't lose patience with Ameriville because it shocked my sensibilities or showed me my crimes. I lost patience because it seemed to demand that I accept the role that had been picked out for me. I could either be an acolyte or—well, that was it. I wasn't being engaged, I was being enlisted. And I didn't sign up.
Later this year Yew will direct Luis Alfaro's Oedipus El Rey, another play that's recent and imported rather than new and original. I hope he'll eventually get around to expressing his zest for Dennis's legacy by applying himself to a Victory Gardens world premiere. The playwrights' ensemble needs some shaking up—probably a lot of it, considering the long tenure and aesthetic uniformity of some of its members. But the mission is still sound.