Good theater can make the strange familiar. Great theater usually makes the familiar strange.
And for someone like me who has worked on Michigan Avenue for years, what is more familiar than the city of Chicago? A city one thinks one knows, having lived most of one's life amid its streets, commuted along its sidewalks, cursed its flaws, dodged its terrors, pointed out its gorgeous summer sights to countless out-of-town friends. There's a good chance you feel the same.
But if you take my fervent recommendation and go see "en route" — the title of a wholly individual performance experiment currently on offer in downtown Chicago — I guarantee you'll see this city in a way you have never seen it before. It doesn't matter if you're born and bred, recently transplanted or reading this in the lobby of your hotel, the experience will be just as revelatory. And unlike almost any other piece of theater you'll have seen, you will feel very much alone.
Created by a company called One Step at a Time Like This, "en route" is a solo experience. It makes you feel like you're drifting through the city in a separate reality from the unseeing hordes you travel among.
Here is the nitty-gritty: You buy a ticket from the box office of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the presenter. You show up at the Wrigley Building at an agreed-upon time. A nice Australian woman finds you — you don't find this show, it finds you. You are given a digital music player, with 15 tracks. These tracks, played on cue as you go, include music, mostly from Chicago musicians, and text. A nice Australian man tells you how to use the machine and straps it on your arm. You are told to pull out your own cell phone and make sure it is getting text messages. And then, with a text as your send-off, you are sent out to follow a variety of directions through the city, ending at a different and unknown point somewhere else in the city.
These directions arrive in myriad ways: on the sidewalk below you, on little pieces of paper, in a little container that someone has left for you, sent via texts, delivered in person. Many of them seem to have always been there. Often, you feel like you are going somewhere you are not supposed to be going — into space that you thought were private — but you are told to trust yourself. And, as the 100-minute walk wends on, you increasingly find that you do.
On one level, "en route" is a very cool and fun adult treasure hunt through one of America's biggest cities. It has that air of mystery and that pleasure of discovery. But it's a good deal more. Despite the way it might sound (and despite my own preconceptions), this is not some sort of souped-up self-guided tour of the city, created by outsiders who parachuted in. You don't listen to the Blues Brothers or hear about Louis Sullivan. You are asked to explore your own feelings, find your own voice and, frankly, confront the way you can be in a place for maybe a lifetime and see so little. You get the chance to right that. On the walls, in your head, or out loud.
The less you know about where are going and what you will be doing there, the better. So although I really want to spill, I'll do my best to keep the details under wraps.
I will, say, though, that you spend a lot of time in alleys. In my case, I'd walked down most of them before — some hundreds of times. But I'd never really looked at the huge cast of characters — Chicagoans who are not in the show, but are in the show — that lurk within their boundaries and do the most fascinating things there. You find yourself watching them, looking at them, wondering about them and their lives. At other times, you wonder the same of the besuited people rushing around you like fervent Metra-raised rabbits on the streets of the Loop. (I did "en route" during rush hour, which is ideal). And, of course, you look at the space in which we all live. "En route" is not really about the front of Chicago's physical reality but the rear — the backlot, the service entrance, the private spaces that workers of all stripes make, just a few feet from where they toil.
Let me just add this, and then you need to call for tickets: This show is wholly immersive of the psyche. I went stressed out, shoving it between other commitments, and wholly cynical about how a company from Melbourne could possibly teach us anything about life in Chicago. They could. They did. You won't think of anything else during the piece.
"En route" (a London version will be part of the London Olympic arts festival in 2012) is strangely empowering: you feel like you're finally — finally — spending an actual hour or two in the service of something that matters. And it feels remarkably safe. As you progress, you sense a group of guardians keeping you on track, helping you find things. I made a wrong-turn and I was immediately saved. It was most comforting to have guardians in the big, bad city.
And the moment when someone gabbed me by the hand and took off with me through the city, running, was one of those rushes of feeling and experience and self-actualization that usually cost you a great deal of money and involve hot-air balloons or space or something weird and ridiculous.
Not here. 'En Route" is just a trip through Chicago. Like no other.
When: Tuesday through Saturday through Aug. 13, with up to five staggered departures at 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.
Where: Starting point is in the northeast Loop; you'll be contact 24 hours before your tour with more instructions.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Tickets: $35 at 312-595-5600 (no online sales)
More information: Wear comfortable shoes, you'll walk more than a mile, and events are rain or shine. An MP3 player is provided; bring your own cell phone for text messages or one can be provided. "En route" is intended as a solo experience but if you need to bring a partner, they'll get their own ticket and MP3 player. Best for ages 16+.