Xtravaganza | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

This multimedia production by the Builders Association, a New York-based experimental ensemble founded by former Wooster Group dramaturge Marianne Weems, pays tribute to four visionaries of American entertainment. Two of them are well remembered today--Chicago-born Florenz Ziegfeld for his extravagant Broadway revues of the 1920s and Busby Berkeley for the still astonishing choreography and camera work in his 1930s movie musicals. Less familiar are dancer Loie Fuller (born in 1862 in Fullersburg, Illinois) and designer-inventor Steele MacKaye. Fuller's "skirt dances" in the late 19th and early 20th centuries featured the artist twirling in billowing costumes, creating hallucinatory images with the aid of ingenious lighting she developed herself. MacKaye, a prolific playwright and profligate producer, pioneered such technical innovations as overhead lighting, folding theater seats, and moving stages for faster scene changes. His gargantuan (and prohibitively costly) Spectatorium, conceived for Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, would have boasted 25 such stages as well as 12,000 seats. The auditorium was never built--but just as the war-machine sketches in Leonardo's notebooks shaped military history, so MacKaye's designs exerted a huge influence on theater architecture. Directed by Weems, Xtravaganza is a trippy, visually entrancing meditation on the interaction of technology and live performance; in the video I watched, the show's strongest elements were the extraordinary images created by Peter Norman's video design and Jennifer Tipton's lighting. Xtravaganza has been presented as a work in progress in Brussels, Rotterdam, and Strasbourg; next week's engagement, presented by Performing Arts Chicago, is the production's world premiere as well as the Builders Association's local debut. Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, 773-722-5463 or 312-902-1500. Opens Thursday, September 13, 7:30 PM. Through September 16: Friday-Saturday, 8 PM; Sunday, 4 PM. $20.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paula Cort.

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