By The Qu Staff
It’s a question that’s haunted every revolution from the history-shaking ones of France and Russia and the current tumult of the Arab Spring, right down to the cultural ones of punk rock and the act of storytelling itself: now what?
“Rise of the Numberless,” a new theatrical collaboration between Bailiwick Chicago and The New Colony, brims with energy, ideas, and a cavalcade of “fight the power” rock ballads. It boasts a tantalizing setup, sure staging, and a game cast. But when the anarchic dust has settled, the 75-minute play comes so jam-packed with bombast, there’s little room for resolution in this ode to revolution.
The play understands that the dark fun of a dystopian narrative lies in coaxing the audience into asking, “What is this world and how did ours turn into it?” The central premise involves a not-too-distant-future America solving a population crisis by enacting a “one family, one child” law. Parents dispose of their children unlucky enough to be born alongside older siblings. These social castoffs comprise an underground faction of off-the-grid citizens known as the Numberless.
To gain support in their fight for survival against the tyrannical government that aims to quell them, the Numberless group regularly stages covert song-and-story shows for audiences of sympathizers (that’s you!). The large cast has a lot of fun with the “you are there” audience interactivity that defines the show. When they’re warning the audience to hush up lest government patrollers get wind of tonight’s performance, it has all the suspense, both genuine and schlocky, of a Universal Studios thrill ride.
The songs (music by Chris Gingrich & Julie B. Nichols, lyrics by Chris Gingrich & Andrew Hobgood) that comprise a large portion of the show have an undeniable verve and poetry to them, and the cast belts the roster of songs with the pitch perfect understanding of what makes the best of punk and glam rock resonate, displaying a strange and precise mixture of catharsis and winking mischief. They don’t just rebel; they revel.
Mac Vaughuy’s stripped down lighting scheme – it’s all work lights and flashlights – not only helps to sell the “underground” atmosphere of this world, it also aids in controlling the chaos of 15 cast members wading through overlapping flashbacks and story threads. The cast’s makeup and Kate Setzer Kamphausen’s basic yet striking costumes further help locate the tonality somewhere in between punk and glam rock without betraying the idea that these people are a band of striving nomads. Director Andrew Hobgood has a fine eye for staging. Meanwhile, the cast must be commended for committing full-force to this world. No matter where you look, whether onstage, in the aisles, or the most darkened corners of the room (the production engulfs the audience with these people), you won’t find one cast member believing anything less than what the play demands: that they’re literally singing for their life.
We don’t spend a lot of time getting to know the Numberless, which comes off as an unfortunate irony given the play’s thematic goal of humanizing the dehumanized. The performers work well in concert with each other, but only two of them succeed in rising above the clamor: As Silas, Michael Harnichar displays a lascivious jester’s charm. Spending most of the show in a sleepy, drunken stupor, his languid movements and playful “come hither” theatrics elevate his performances from faithful simulacrum of a rock concert to an actual full-on rock concert. While Harnichar plays to the back rows, Ryan Lanning as Howard is notable for the exact opposite reason. Though his main purpose (like most everyone else here) involves laying out the exposition, he does so in a way that’s the most intimate, vulnerable, and quietly intelligent. His soulful introspection is the only counterbalance to the rest of the proceedings turned up to 11.
The cast does the best they can to service a script that feels at once bloated and underwhelming. The crux of the story involves the President of the United States, his wife, and his children. While this plot thread should have been packed with dramatic punches and mythological ramifications (the national leader grappling with the consequence of his own law! Brother fighting against brother! A mother with a Sophie’s choice to call her own!), it’s so rushed and flat that it has all the hokey broadness of a nighttime soap. Other plot threads involving dead or traitorous characters turn out to be little more than distractions.
While the play does begin to address these ideas regarding survival, class distinction, marginalized groups of society, and the responsibilities of one generation to the next, “Rise of the Numberless” has no time to bite into its own juicy premise. Nonetheless, the show’s central concept is so primal, and so endlessly begging for parable-style interpretation. It’s not hard to imagine “Rise of the Numberless” as a comic book, or a series of novels, or a television show. After all, what’s on display in “Rise of the Numberless” isn’t a story, but a world that begs to be unfurled over a series of installments. As it stands after this show, we Numberless sympathizers are left to ask that eternal question that comes at the end of all revolutions.