Musical Direction by James Morehead
Starring Harter Clingman, Sharriese Hamilton, Evan Tyrone Martin, Peter Oyloe and Danni Smith
Produced by Bailiwick Chicago at the Steppenwolf Garage
LaChiusa’s beautiful and complex score is well-served by this group of young and earnest performers.
See What I Wanna See, Michael John LaChiusa’s sultry chamber musical on the quandaries of sin and redemption, had its Chicago premier last night at the Steppenwolf Garage. Produced by Bailiwick Chicago, LaChiusa’s resonant and psychologically nuanced score is in capable hands here, director Lili-Anne Brown soliciting subtly adept performances from a young yet sonorous cast.
The first act takes place following the U.S. premier of Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 period drama, Rashomon (itself taken from Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s short story “In a Grove”). And in truth, LaChiusa derives his plot and characters from Kurosawa’s original film, recasting its roles with the stock conventions of American film noir. Three witnesses to a crime of passion committed in Central Park are called in to deliver testimony to the New York police. As in Kurosawa’s movie, each of the testimonies offer a wildly divergent perspective on the murder of a Husband (Harter Clingman), whose testimony on his own murder is proffered through a spiritual medium (Sharriese Hamilton). His Wife (Danni Smith) claims to have killed him. As does a Thief (Peter Oyloe). And the Husband himself actually claims to have committed suicide.
If all of this sounds remarkably disjointed, it’s supposed to. The standard conventions of a whodunnit mystery are dispensed with entirely, instead replaced with the clawing efforts of the witnesses to redeem themselves in the wake of the Husband’s death. An acerbic commentary on our efforts to achieve grace in the light of our blighted pasts, LaChiusa’s jazz-infused score is subtly punctuated with a violent sexuality and ironic emotional undertones. Still, at times the first act gets bogged down in its own moody stylizations—and this was true even of the original 2005 production at New York’s Public Theater (which I was fortunate enough to see). And Steppenwolf’s production only validates my initial suspicion that much of the first act’s darkness is slightly contrived, cashing in on the brooding conventions of the noir genre.
The second act shifts to present-day New York, and there See What I Wanna See starts to deftly earn its emotional turns . A Priest (Peter Oyloe) coming to doubt his vocation turns to playing a mordant joke on the peoples of New York, anonymously advertising that a miracle will occur in Central Park in three weeks time. Inspired by his atheistic and socialist aunt (Danni Smith), the Priest is surprised to find that this singular act actually inspires the people of New York to reinvigorate their own sense of hopefulness. For whereas the first act reads itself backward into a nebulous past, the second act looks forward into a heartening future. This, to my mind, is what makes See What I Wanna See such a rich and complex work, refusing to accept without mutual consideration neither despair nor blind faith.
The second act’s plucky score is well-handled by these capable performers with standout performances from both Harter Clingman as a schizotypal C.P.A. and Dannie Smith as the Priest’s strident aunt. In all honesty, despite being near twenty years her junior, Smith’s forceful rendition of “There Will Be a Miracle” actually rivals that of Mary Testa (who originated the role at the Public). Clinging to her nephew, teetering toward death, Ms. Smith plays every emotional string available to her without ever slipping into the sentimental. And Peter Oyloe as the embittered Priest plays his part with tremendous honesty, building to a compelling and earnest transformation in character.
And director Lili-Anne Brown manages to turn See What I Wanna See’s overly plodding pacing into an otherwise brisk two hours of beautiful music and stirring performances. LaChiusa, much like Sondheim, never makes the work of the actor or director easy. Refusing the more cloying sentiments of a Rodgers and Hammerstein, his work requires constant focus and subtle emotional turns. Thankfully Bailiwick Chicago Theatre is up for the challenge!
Anthony J. Mangini
Reviewed Saturday, March 2nd, 2013
Running time is approximately 2 hours including one intermission.
See What I Wanna See runs until April 21st, 2013. The Steppenwolf Garage is located at 1624 N. Halsted (right next to the Steppenwolf’s main stage). Tickets can be obtained through their box office at (312) 335-1650 or at their website (www.steppenwolf.org). Half-price tickets are available at their Theater in Chicago listing: https://www.theatreinchicago.com/see-what-i-wanna-see/6108/.