On a weekend when the streets of Chicago are expected to fill with protesters, the Dog & Pony Theatre Company is staging a look back at a previous time that happened: the 1968 convention of the Democratic Party.
Staged promenade-style in an upstairs room at the Biograph Theatre, the original theater piece "The Whole World Is Watching" features some laudably intense performances within its company of 13 mostly young actors, as well as rousing, well-sung protest music accompanied by a live band and a collage-style ambience replete with video footage of the days when the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam marched in Grant Park, even as the Yippies ruled Lincoln Park to the north. But the company-devised show (text and songs are credited to Devon de Mayo and Stephen Ptacek, with direction by de Mayo, David Dieterich Gray and Elana Boulos) is also a missed opportunity because it never makes clear what it wants to say or show us, beyond the obvious.
Riots and protests, especially from this era, are tricky beasts to tame in the theater. For one thing, you have to dodge all those "Hair" cliches, an assignment at which this piece is not entirely successful. Despite the efforts of the actors, the show doesn't achieve any kind of fully immersive ambience — it falls between many viable styles — and one never feels transported to the green park of 44 years ago from the reality of a white, upstairs rehearsal room where, strangely, cold fluorescent bulbs are allowed to burn. Yet more problematic, though, is the lack of detail in the text. There are the beginnings of interesting, paradoxical themes: the idea that some of the protesters and the Chicago police officers they were fighting had gone to the same high school in the same Chicago neighborhood; the notion that some of the amassed members of the Illinois National Guard may have joined the National Guard because they were against the war in Vietnam, only to find themselves fighting those protesting that very war. And there are a few sparks of Chicago humor: "You gonna put ketchup on that hot dog?" one cop asks another, at the start of the show. "What are you, a communist?"
But there are no memorable characters to follow, nor enough of the kind of dense historical and political details that would make the show feel like a credible snapshot of a defining civic moment for Chicago. You don't really believe anything you see and the show never puts the events of Chicago in 1968 in any kind of palpable context. To put it bluntly, while there is a certain panache on display, there is no real play here, nor a substitute that might offer other meaningful theatrical rewards. When the cast bursts into song, not only do the actors sound terrific, but you get a sense of what this show might have been, had more ideas and fresher images been allowed to roam.
But at this juncture, "The Whole World is Watching" is a not-very-satisfying piece (the music aside) that tends to resort to familiar sloganeering and crutches, when it needs to find depth, truth, freshness and meaning.
When: Through June 9
Where: Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Tickets: $25 at 773-871-300 or victorygardens.orgCopyright © 2015, RedEye