Red Tape Theatre’s ‘All Quiet On The Western Front.’ (Photo: Austin Oie)
By Becky Sarwate
As the spatial concept of “over there” becomes obsolete, with catastrophic events around the world bearing hyperlocal implications, stories of individual pain and shared sacrifice from over a century ago have the power to resonate today. We are collectively frightened by 21st-century threats we neither fully understand nor have the power to resolve alone, including climate change, the resurgence of totalitarian strongmen and their repressive policies, global economic unrest and renewed nuclear proliferation. Red Tape Theatre’s All Quiet On The Western Front eloquently captures the range of emotions that can accompany resignation to an imagined, but uncertain fate.
The play is a vivid 2019 update of the hallmark 20th-century literary classic about the horrors of World War I, told from the perspective of German soldiers on the front lines. Written and directed by Matt Foss with permission from the Remarque estate, Red Tape’s adaptation feels germane in this era of uncertain, interdependent globalization.
All Quiet On The Western Front is my second Red Tape experience, after catching the raucous and pleasantly rowdy We Are Pussy Riot (Or) Everything is P.R. back in June. This production marks the company’s 16th season offering quality Chicago theater at no charge to the public, and I can’t fathom what took me so long to discover its exciting, visceral programming.
Red Tape Theatre’s artistic leadership has a knack for creating relevant works that offer important critiques on the sociopolitical issues of today. This latest production continues that pattern by dusting off source material about human suffering that accompanied the world’s first tango with industrialized trench warfare — just as we’re grappling with new concepts of violence at the hands of weaponized trade, immigration and environmental policy.
With a terrific, diverse ensemble cast led by the electric Elena Victoria Feliz in the role of Paul, this rendering of Mr. Remarque’s novel leverages music, rhythm and special effects to humanize a band of German soldiers on the wrong side of history. Familiar pop tunes with themes of war, movement and strategically placed smoke dissolve nationality and “siderism” into a universal parable of fear, longing and inevitability. Agnostic of time or place, the troops dance the haka to communicate wild male aggression, and it works. We understand that when so much is unknown, it’s psychologically safest to keep moving, to stay muted and guarded.
So much of this understanding is communicated through Ms. Feliz’s eyes. It could be easy to dismiss her mostly silent role, but the performance and her character are the production’s moral, emotional and physical center. Paul is the omniscient narrator who knows how the story of the 2nd Company ends, even as he’s living it, stoically following through every chapter with empathy and tremendous sadness. This earns Paul the respect of his platoon and solidifies for the audience that Paul’s is the balanced perspective through which we should collectively process the experiences we see onstage. Ms. Feliz achieves this narrative feat using very little more than eye contact with her fellow actors, the folks in the cheap seats, even with the sound engineer. This young actress is going to do big things.
The rest of the cast turns in solid, committed work. Caitlin Ewald is a standout as Kat — the cocky, cool and connected soldier that all the others want to be, even as his heart remains with the home he left behind. The ensemble displays hints of deft comic timing in lighter episodes, such as an impromptu romantic encounter between German soldiers and rural French women. It’s the little pockets of humanity and the audience’s awareness that the characters are standing in for real people who died to protect the ideals of other, more powerful men, that render the story’s ultimate tragedy so profoundly affecting.
Running just under two hours with no intermission, Red Tape Theatre’s All Quiet On The Western Front injects new energy and storytelling devices into a familiar tale of war, and its taxes on hope and the human spirit.
All Quiet On The Western Front
Greenhouse Theater Center
2257 North Lincoln, Chicago
Through September 14
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic, blogger, and author of Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team (Eckhartz Press). She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob, their cats, Wendy and Lisa and their dog, RuPaul. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.