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Midweek Arts Pick: Spektral Quartet's Theatre Of War

By Alexander Hough in Arts & Entertainment on May 22, 2012 7:00PM

Photo courtesy of Spektral Quartet

With the din of the NATO summit fading, we're left with the feeling that there was a missed opportunity. Media coverage of the weekend focused predominantly on the conflict between police and protesters. Where there was substantive discussion, your choices were limited to wonky talk of decisions about troop and funding levels made by an international coalition with little accountability, or a diffuse message from a passionate opposition whose loudest members are the most extreme. There's a vast amount of space in between to engage in, and the most thoughtful ruminations may come May 23-24 during Theatre of War, a multidisciplinary show co-produced by the talented Spektral Quartet and High Concept Laboratories.

The event, planned to coincide with the NATO meetings, uses music, theater, poetry, and film to examine the effects of war and, more crucially, the contemporary phenomenon of the average citizen's detachment from war's consequences. The program is centered around George Crumb's Black Angels, his 1970 piece for electric string quartet (although the work includes instruments as diverse as voice, percussion, and crystal glassware filled with different amounts of water). The music, composed during the Vietnam War and carrying the inscription in tempore belli, is dark and violent, and was chosen by Spektral to contrast with the complacency with which the American public has met the past decade of war. The other music, Chicagoan Drew Baker's Stress Positions for amplified solo piano, is somewhat of a concept piece, forcing the pianist to stretch to opposite ends of the instrument in a manner reminiscent of the infamous photo of the hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner. The music is tedious, relentless, and inevitably intrusive.

Non-musical selections include three brief films by embedded photojournalist Richard Mosse (Gaza Pastoral, Killcam, and Theatre of War), best known for Infra, his haunting series of photos of war in the Congo made with film the U.S. military developed in the 1940s to detect camouflage; "Blackbird," a short story about a veteran home from war by Chicago writer Virginia Konchan adapted for the stage by High Concept's Molly Feingold; and poems by Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska. All ticket sale proceeds will be donated to the Vet Art Project.

Theatre of War meditates on the personal rather than political, which we feel obligated to point out; it's a distressing sign of our times that considering the destructive side of war feels like a political stance. Ultimately there are political implications - behind closed doors at McCormick Place, NATO leaders made decisions that we all implicitly co-signed - but Spektral and High Concept's point is that a political choice isn't fully informed without awareness of the human-level toll. The show won't get the attention that the Sunday skirmish at Michigan and Cermak got, but it may just be a more convincing statement than anything that came out of the South Loop over the past several days.

Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, $30, $20 students