Should you be overwhelmed by your problems — or maybe you're just involved with someone who considers their personal needs of greater cosmic significance than you think they merit — then an evening spent in the company of Ontroerend Goed this week might be just the ticket. Sometimes we go to the theater to be made to feel like we matter. Sometimes it's healthy to go there to be reminded that we really don't matter much at all. It lightens one's load a tad.
That's certainly the takeaway from "A History of Everything," the entertaining and, in its latter moments, strikingly moving production from the very smart, ensemble-based Belgian company that's been a darling of the international festival circuit and has now arrived at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater as part of the indispensable World Stage program. Directed by Alexander Devriendt, the show begins with a young woman standing on an empty stage and pondering how things can travel backward as well as forward, perhaps allowing us one day to correct past mistakes, tell our dead loved ones what we never got to say to them before they died and eventually return to the calming waters of our mothers' wombs — a delightful thought, as I write under some duress.
And then once that little monologue is completed, a little cut-out map of our planet is revealed on the floor of the stage, and a projection of the day's date appears on the back wall. From thence, the clock ticks backward — firstly slowly, then in huge chunks of years — as the young members of this internationalist theater company provide a Wikipedia-like history of everything in reverse chronological order, beginning with the day's bad news from the famous losers of Wrigley Field, rushing past the financial crisis, Hiroshima and Hitler, and drawing to a close when humanity was represented by three cells and a membrane, which some fans would see as an apt description of the current Cubs' starting lineup. Plus ca change.
Telling the story of many millions of years in 100 minutes is no unique feat, of course. In the amusing but fairly predictable early sections, some of which work and some of which do not, this show has something in common with the products of The Reduced Shakespeare Company, which had abridged everything from the Bible to the Bard of Avon for light comic effect. But this substantial "History of Everything" really hits a distinctive stride and finds a surprisingly intense emotional core — once that digital dateline reaches back several thousands years and the little toy planes, costumes and flags marking "wars" on the map give way to a more serious brand of storytelling involving the representation of shifting land masses and humans who flail in the dark for want of the capacity to strike a match.
What makes the work, overall, so distinctive, and so intellectually and philosophically stimulating for teens and adults, is the inspired device of going backward. It's like watching humanity with the rewind button pressed. We go from our current global mess (or, if you're the optimistic type, our current set of astounding human achievements) all the way back to the moment when some kind of something first came out of the black hole that one day will swallow us all again. So quit worrying about whatever it is you are worrying about.
"A History of Everything," which is performed in English by an international cast of seven (one of the actors, Joeri Smit, wrote the piece along with Devriendt), is very much a science-based story that sidesteps religion except to offer up its acts and consequences as part of the grand-yet-futile human quest for meaning and purpose beyond atomic coincidence.
It's fascinating, of course, to see what bits of history these actor-writers choose to include (the start of the show is re-written, Second City-style, for every performance). And while some of the transitions are wittier and more creative than others, it's a consistently intriguing composite of pop culture ("Thriller," Tiger Woods and the music video "Friday" all get two seconds of attention), variously successful stabs at representing shameful moments (like Rwanda, which was so unforgivable, or Abu Ghraib) and set-piece depictions of crucial turning points in our lives. In the section on the Industrial Revolution, the cast turns into an assembly line. At another moment, it strikes a Renaissance pose. The classical worlds of Greece and Rome get strikingly short shrift; but then, tough choices are a fact of life for every historian.
When you listen to factoids coming at you at this speed, you're struck by a few things. In bed that night, I was pondering how recent the Apple-fueled revolution really is (Steve Jobs shows up in this show, perennially presenting a life-changing new product at gaps of about two minutes) and also the stunning increase in the population of the world. The actors recount the number of humans from seven billion down to zero, and, in the scheme of things, it's really not very long ago at all since there were far, far fewer of us.
It's not that "The History of Everything," which delighted its audience Friday night and will act as balm for anyone who thinks too much of live entertainment is too trivial, has much to say that's new. The appeal is partly in the skill of its presentation, and also in the way it makes you see the big picture by merely offering so many small vistas. And the end of the human story — which is, of course, the beginning — is by far the best part of the show, as tsunamis and Donna Summer give way to light and, in the end, black.
When: Through June 3
Where: Upstairs Theater, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Tickets: $35-$45 at 312-595-5600 or chicagoshakes.com