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Transcendent theater experience gets at heart of what it means to be alive

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When: Through June 3

Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier

Tickets: $35-$45

Info: (312) 595-5600;

Updated: July 3, 2012 11:37AM

With its cocky title, “A History of Everything,” you might think the show by Belgium’s Ontroerend Goed (Feel Estate) company would be a glib, standard-issue sketch comedy. Nothing could be further from the truth. As it turns out, this is a profound, transcendent work of theater, movement, music and light — a 95-minute piece that gets to the very heart of what it means to be alive (whether as a human, a horse, a fish, a cell or a rock) and to be part of the wholly mysterious and remarkable mechanism we call “the universe.”

Exquisite in its simplicity and breathtaking in its intellectual and emotional reach, “A History of Everything,” being presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater, may well leave you dazed and changed. Directed with endless ingenuity by Alexander Devriendt (who co-wrote it with Joeri Smet), the show is a true masterpiece — a living, breathing work of poetry that echoes William Blake’s famous lines: “To see a world in a grain of sand/And a heaven in a wild flower/Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/And eternity in an hour.” It also is funny, playful, sexy, political, historical, lyrical and very close to a religious experience.

In the beginning there is a meditation on all that is to come, presented with great charm by the fetching Charlotte De Bruyne , who confesses she is perplexed by the Big Bang theory that suggests we are living in an ever-expanding universe that will eventually reach its limit and then begin to slow down and perhaps even stop. She also establishes the premise of the show, which will take us from all the specific events and phenomena of this very moment and then begin to unspool it so that we experience evolution in reverse. Intriguingly, time grows increasingly compressed, even as the actual years of each era grow larger in number.

Yet the densest history is our own, as a map of the world is consistently labeled with signs declaring “War” and whole continents are either in chaos or under foreign domination, with Stavinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” underscoring part of this upheaval to superb effect.

Along the way, the big questions are posed — about the seeming pattern of domination of whites over blacks, about the continual quest for sufficient food (and the impulse for acquisition and greed), about human migration, about the shifting of the tectonic plates.

The beauty of all this is the economy of means used by Devriendt and his performers to capture enormous changes and express hugely complex notions. True to its title, the show embraces a tremendous amount of information, but nothing is presented in a pedantic or literal way. Snow is a magically recurring image, falling on everything from Napoleon’s army in Russia to ill-fated dinosaurs living in a period of global warmth that shifts to an Ice Age. Our own nation-state era returns to an age of monarchies with the simple addition of gold paper crowns.

We are continually reminded of how the human population, now at about 7 billion, was at barely 10,000 eons ago, with humans emerging very late in the scheme of things. In one of the most touching moments, a man (the excellent Tahki Saul, a member of the Sydney Theatre Company with which this show was devised) touchingly wonders about the very last word spoken before he devolves from man to animal, and of course we realize this would be the very first word spoken by a human. Saul also oversees a magical process of erasure as he draws an amphibian on the floor with chalk, and gradually removes all its features until it is nothing but a one-celled organism.

In addition to De Bruyne, Saul and Smet, the exceptionally handsome, highly individualistic company includes Zindzi Okenyo, Angelo Tijssens, Matthieu Sys and Nathali Verbeke, all of whom bring an easy grace and wit to the performance of this breathtaking evocation of existence.

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