Chicago Theater Review: TILIKUM (Sideshow Theatre Company at Victory Gardens)

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by Lawrence Bommer on June 29, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


Orcas, it seems, can suffer for our sins. In Tilikum — a world-premiere from Sideshow Theatre Company — the struggle of indigenous people to reclaim their stolen land comes down to a giant fish tank. Playwright Kristiana Rae Colon imagines a white-supremacist version of Sea World. Its crime against nature is the repression of the 12,000-pound title orca, a former “Shamu”-style king of the seas. Of course, by implication, this parable indicts the enslavement of all captured peoples. No question, that’s a worthy target, but this is theater, so it has to be a moving one.

Accompanied by a percussive trio (Coco Elysses, Melissa F. DuPrey, Ea Williams), the 90-minute action details the plight of this great cetacean, trapped in a kind of aquatic minstrel show in a marine amusement park. Gregory Geffrard plays Tilikum as a killer whale/political prisoner/slave/cop victim (“How long am I in for?”), a displaced mammal eager to find a tide to liberty. Condemned to perform five daily shows of “killer whale magic” for the bovine public, Tilikum longs for freedom more than fish. Elysses’s driving score sets a killer pace as Tilikum writhes in circles around this lesser ocean, deriving messages from his cetacean ancestors. Equally persuasive, wonderful oceanic animation by Paul Deziel depicts Tilikum’s fellow finny prisoners.

Befriending Tilikum across the species barriers (at the risk of suggesting bestiality), Dawn (Sigrid Sutter) is a “bleeding heart” curator who connects his suffering with her own mistreatment by The Owner (Matt Fletcher). This odious authoritarian marvels at “how bad [the public] needs to feel small.” Animal or human rights notwithstanding, this caricature of “The Man” cares only for profit.

Of course, given this static situation — inhumanity seen from underwater — things cannot end well. Like tourists gaping at cruel captivity, the audience is helpless to intervene as Tilikum bleeds from his tongue, bangs against the walls struggling to escape, and inadvertently kills his would-be rescuer. In this nautical version of Ferguson, “Free Willy” just won’t happen. No, the public be damned! — and amused…

For all its heavy-handed overkill, Tilikum — lifted by its poetry and sincerity — is more than a pep rally for the PC crowd. But, overwritten and underplotted, it seems stuck in its situation. Both species are condemned to comment on the action rather than live it. Because its parallels are blatant from the beginning, we’re left to admire Lili-Anne Brown’s very watchable staging and to savor committed performances from Sideshow actors who definitely deserve center ring. That’s not quite enough.

photos by Jonathan L. Green

Sideshow Theatre Company
Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 2:30
ends on July 29, 2018
for tickets, call 773.871.3000 or visit Victory Gardens

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Nikki Smith June 29, 2018 at 5:20 pm

Thanks for this well-written review, Mr. Bommer.


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