Ameriville

Developed and Directed by Chay YewAmeriville, Victory Gardens, Chicago, Steven Sapp, Mildrew Ruiz-Sapp, Gamal Chasten, William Ruiz

Produced by Universes

At Victory Garden Theaters

Desolation looms and hope is hard to find.

There’s a fear of “empathy fatigue” in the world today. And it’s hardly new. In our 24-hour news cycle, we’re exposed to so many stories and tragedies that it’s easier to shut down emotionally than deal with the nuances of our neighbors. Universes’ latest ensemble production Amerville  seems to think that the best remedy is to use stomping to bash a message of awareness into the audience and awaken them to a reality they had already realized. It tries so hard to have an edge but becomes blunt force.

Ameriville begins rather poignantly before descending to polemic: a soulful ballad from the victims of Katrina that reminds us that devastation doesn’t stop when we stop looking. It spirals downhill quickly, trotting out endless tragic stories of the people who live in this Ameriville. Moving on from Katrina to Chicago, to unnamed places throughout and back again, a tirade of tales from one-dimensional stereotypes dances across the stage. They are meant to be the stories that bind us together. Instead, it’s hard to find a common thread that aspires to do more than provide the same kind of empathy-vaccinating serum the news-cycle provides.

Ameriville, Victory Gardens, Chicago, Steven Sapp, Mildrew Ruiz-Sapp, Gamal Chasten, William Ruiz
As a piece of propaganda, liberals may find themselves distanced from their own narrative while conservatives cozy up to theirs. The tone drifts from comedy to satire to pathos, song to monologue to skit,  with an agenda that is murky at best. Like the water’s of Katrina that washed away their American Dream, the characters are flooded by too many tropes to be anything but shallow. No one seems to have informed the ensemble that subtly works better than slamming. That’s especially true if you’re intent is to change a mind with genuine heart. Artistic Director Chay Yew said of Ameriville, “Universes weaves this beautiful, powerful…exploration of race, class, poverty, immigration and political awareness into a great adventure about what it means to be an American.”

With all the despair presented on stage, it’s more of an exercise in just how many times an audience can hear that America is a place riddled with tragedy, xenophobia and a short attention span. Ameriville, Victory Gardens, Chicago, Steven Sapp, Mildrew Ruiz-Sapp, Gamal Chasten, William RuizIf it ever got around to the “hope” or “beautiful” aspects, they were lost in the midst of its own swirling set of narratives. Even the staging, with its projections of alarming facts and figures, downplays the stories of the homeless and helpless by turning them into the very statistics that numb us to their plight.

As a cast, Steven Sapp, Mildrew Ruiz-Sapp, Gamal Chasten, and William Ruiz bring an astonishing amount of energy for the sustained note they have to maintain. Singing and dancing with a frenetic energy, they pack a wallop. It’s a lot of power for an indiscernible purpose. One can admire their passion even as they wish they were putting it to better use.

The righteously indignant tone that pervades so much of the production seems to be that of the “last angry man” at open-mic night. Ultimately it’s a disappointment to see so much effort spent reminding us to have empathy for a weary world. It offends by putting us on the offensive by aggressively assuming we lack it.

Not Recommended.

Clint May

Date Reviewed: February 6, 2012

For more info checkout the Ameriville page on www.theatreinchicago.com

At Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago, IL 60614, call 773.871.3000, or www.victorygardens.org, tickets $20-50, Tuesdays-Saturday: 7:30pm, Saturday Matinee 4 pm, Sunday Matinee 3 pm, Wednesday Matinee 2pm, running time is officially stated as 90 minutes, through February 26.

EDITOR’S NOTE: I agree with Clint May’s review of Ameriville. I thought the show was anti-American propaganda and the piece was too long at 2 hours. It was so pessimistic that it produced a depression that made me feel lousy. To attack America so in-your-face was quite offensive to me. Several audience members left before the long 2 hour on act ended. I guess some make their comment with their feet.  This show makes Waiting For Lefty seem like a conservative piece.

Tom Williams