Theatre Review: THE TOAD KNEW (James Thiérrée’s La Compagnie du Hanneton at Chicago Shakespeare)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 20, 2017

in Theater-Chicago,Tours


Tuesday night’s “consecration of the house,” attended by Chicago’s Mayor Emmanuel, was a celebration that this care-ridden city badly needed. The big news is the grand opening of The Yard, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s state-of-the-arts third theater on Navy Pier. (Its magnificent make-believe replaces the underused, open-air Skyline Stage where Cirque Shanghai presented shows every summer.) An artistic leap forward, the supple indoor edifice is both economically and environmentally sustainable. Connected by a two-level glass lobby to C.S.T.’s two-stage headquarters, the $35-million-dollar facility can seat 150-850 patrons, depending on the configuration.

And thereby hangs a tale: That flexibility is the new venue’s calling card. The size of double-decker buses, its nine audience seating towers operate on compressed air-skid technology, creating a blank slate and no fixed footprint for any show. More than just a malleable black box, The Yard can efficiently rearrange its contents into three-quarter thrust, proscenium, runway, and arena arrangements, shape-shifting that can serve any show and inspire them as well.

The small news is The Yard’s opening presentation. Much like the proverbial first pancake (a test crepe to be thrown away rather than eaten), the pseudo-circus called The Toad Knew is forgettable and dispensable. Making its U.S. premiere, James Thiérrée’s eclectic concoction is, no question, an imaginative spectacle with astonishing special effects—tilting and flying UFO-like glass lamps, a ghostly player piano, an all-purpose water tank, trapezes for dangling performers, an LED lightning strike that punctuates the action, and human-operated red velvet curtains and a giant undulating fish creature made up of billowing parachute silk.

But tricks don’t always total truth: All dressed up with nowhere to go, that action amounts to 100 minutes of imponderable and often incoherent performance art. Its silly slapstick and aimless burlesque come replete with contortionist pantomime and empty acrobatics from six overworked artists. The musical backdrop, especially the selections from Mozart, undermines rather than compliments the onstage shenanigans.

Putatively about sibling rivalry redeemed by brotherly love, this Cirque du Soleil spinoff is playful enough. There were titters and chuckles but never laughs of recognition. Because its precious and pretentious hi-jinks feel frustratingly random, quixotic, capricious and ultimately enervating. Billed as a mix of Tim Burton and Salvador Dali, The Toad Knew (its title as impenetrable as its story) is a casebook and cautionary example of self-indulgence raised to an art form. It’s billed as “artistry that defies categorization”—in this case that’s not a good thing.

But as a showcase for The Yard, where many better shows won’t fail to delight, it’s a serviceable inauguration. With The Toad Knew, which happily closes on Saturday, CST has used up their bad luck and can move on to real heights.

photos by Richard Haughton

The Toad Knew
James Thiérrée’s La Compagnie du Hanneton
The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare
ends on September 23, 2017
for tickets, call 312.595.5600 or visit Chicago Shakes

for more shows, visit Theater in Chicago


Caron Thornton September 20, 2017 at 1:31 pm

Agreed. This was so disappointing after the big build up. I expected so much more. A plot, a theme, a point of view? None was forthcoming. From self indulgent to boring in nearly two hours. I’ve seen much better performance art. Even so the dancers/mimes were very gifted, but unfortunately wasted on this confusing piece.

Lawrence Bommer September 20, 2017 at 3:49 pm

So glad you agree.

I have never looked at my watch so often in 100 minutes — or envied the half-dozen lucky souls who left early! This “emperor” had no clothes.

Xavier Ramirez September 22, 2017 at 9:39 am

The production was excellent, the performance with actors was excellent, but the story line was a zero for me. Half way through the show I saw 3 persons in different areas get up, leave, and not come back. The guy next to me muttered the word “stupid”, and then got up and left. For me the only thing that was lacking was a clear story line. I got up this morning and was still trying to be open-minded and creative of what the story was about and I can’t come up with anything..?

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