Redmoon shakes away the darkness of winter and shows off its vast warehouse home in Pilsen to fine effect in "Bellboys, Bears and Baggage," conceived by Jim Lasko and Blake Montgomery, directed by Montgomery and designed by Frank Maugeri as a "choose your own adventure" riff on Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale." And though Redmoon itself has outgrown its original scruffy outpost on the coast of Chicago's bohemia, where it was birthed at the dawn of the 1990s, this spring spectacle contains plenty of the homespun aesthetics and emphasis on community that has been part of Redmoon's fabric since its inception.
If you've not read the original, you might want to skim a synopsis before going on this particular journey, so you'll at least understand why so many people in bear costumes are running around the joint. (Hint: It comes from the scene in Act III when Antigonus, the retainer to jealous Sicilian king Leontes, abandons the king's infant daughter and then meets his own unhappy end, suggested by the famous stage direction, "Exit (or 'Exeunt'), pursued by a bear."
The narrative, such as it is, offers the barest outlines of Shakespeare's wistful romance about Leontes, whose unfounded suspicions about his queen, Hermione, and his best friend, Polixenes, drive the tale. (Polixenes is the king of landlocked Bohemia, which somehow gets a coastline in Shakespeare's telling, which allows for a rowboat to rise up and over a wall in this show.) A series of small devised rooms around the periphery of the vast central space offer domestic settings — a kitchen, a bedroom, and a study lined with animal heads labeled with the names of other famous Shakespearean characters. (Fittingly, the biggest head is Hamlet's.)
Six men and six women in identical blue-toned costumes and masks move in and out of a series of repeating physical tableaux suggesting flirtation, recrimination and rapprochement. I was particularly charmed by a scene in which a man and woman go from trying to fend off a bear with plastic picnic implements to teaching the bear how to eat with them. Meanwhile the eight bears and eight "bellboys" also move through the space — the latter offering helpful suggestions for where the audience might want to wander next. Montgomery himself takes on the garb of Shakespeare, watching the antics from a bemused distance and chatting with audience members.
If this all sounds a bit abstract — well, that's the point. Audiences are let in every half hour and find their own way around the venue. In choosing your own adventure, you may miss some vital piece of information, or just enjoy time off the beaten track. (Make sure you check out the upper-level warren of rooms, which provide numerous altar-like installations and cut-out windows for a birdseye perspective on the proceedings below.)
Multiple pieces of luggage labeled with words such as "sorrow," "regret," and "blame" hammer home the point that, unlike other Shakespearean romances such as "The Tempest," "The Winter's Tale" has a much more mournful streak (including the death of Leontes and Hermione's young son). Not that any of this is clearly explicated, mind you — the idea is one of mood and elliptical reverie, interspersed with high-energy chases (a bellboy, pursued by a bear, screams "I didn't sign on for this!") and a flash mob-esque dance number to "I Heard It Through the Grapevine."
It would be impossible to enumerate all the visual wonders in this "Spring Spectacle," though I often found that the simpler elements resonated most deeply. One room is filled with wedding gowns hanging from the ceiling upon which are scrawled aphorisms such as "Love is a smoke made with the fumes of life." Quotations from other Shakespearean plays, such as "The Taming of the Shrew" and "Titus Andronicus," provide inside-joke treats. But even those who don't know or care about the original inspiration can surrender to the moment-by-moment absurdity and poignancy of this show and marvel at the outsize playground Redmoon has opened up for audiences.
When: Through June 8, entrances every half hour 7-9 p.m. Thursdays, 7-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 6-8 p.m. Sundays
Where: Redmoon Theater, 2120 S. Jefferson St.
Tickets: $30 at 312-850-8440, ext. 123 or redmoon.org