Centennials are often an occasion for comparison, but there’s something about 1923—the American condition and general state of the Western world—that rhymes awfully well with our current moment. The aftermath of a pandemic that took the lives of millions; a global war that shook humanity’s conception of its own self-destructive power to the core; exploding wealth disparity of soon-to-be catastrophic proportions. If time is indeed a flat circle, 2023 might mark a recurrence of sorts.
And so then, emerging from what seems like years of winter, dazed and blinking in spring sunlight, surveying the wreckage and its reverberations, we stumble again upon T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” For Ellyzabeth Adler, founder and artistic director of Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble, Eliot’s heap of broken images is a longtime literary favorite and the source material for the first dance theater piece she created for her company twenty-one years ago, fresh out of college and before she knew she even wanted a company. Adler restages CDE’s “The Wasteland” at Ebenezer Lutheran Church May 5 through 20—a week behind the cruelest month, but still timely for the anniversary of a poem that permanently scattered shards of language into our collective consciousness one-hundred years ago.
“It felt like the right piece to wrap up this whole crazy thing,” Adler says, referring to the coronavirus pandemic and so much more. “Not just the coinciding of the anniversaries. Especially with everything happening in Ukraine and around the world. One of the lines is ‘I can connect/Nothing with nothing.’ That’s what COVID was like. [Company members] Peyton Hooks and Josh Hogan finished their college careers online. And while it’s wonderful we have technology now we didn’t have back then, we’re still disconnected.”
Adler says that theatrical adaptation of the five-part poem, which shifts point-of-view between an ambiguous speaker and numerous characters who emerge and dissolve back into its bleak and sodden atmosphere, both gives life to Eliot’s imagery and has allowed the performers to unearth subterranean connections in the text. “Shakespeare is beautiful when you read it, more beautiful when you hear it, but when you experience it through a play it takes on a whole ‘nother level. And to me, that’s what bringing this poem alive does. Yesterday in rehearsal [company member] Courtney [Reid Harris] said to me, ‘when I read this line, I realize it’s Lil’s husband from part three!’ She said in the first section she was referring to herself as a child and later on it’s her adult self. We have all our ancestry and their memories inside us. And this is a memory poem.”
In Adler’s interpretation, the eddying stream of voices in “The Waste Land” are channeled through the four-person cast who speak at times as individuals, at times as a chorus. “It’s fun to flip between being a character and feeling,” she says. “In the section about Tiresias, the mythical creature that is both male and female, we all come together to create one moving sculpture with a unison voice.” Adler feels that, for all its images of death, desolation and decay—the opening is framed as a burial, a rat shuffles through corpses in section three, section four gazes at a watery grave—the closing chant of “The Waste Land” is what resonates through the ages: “Shantih shantih shantih,” a Sanskrit invocation of peace. She sees the promise of spring—this spring—in Eliot’s fever dream. “Maybe I’m just excited about the [Chicago mayoral] election results,” she says, “And something else happening in New York right now, but it feels like there’s some hope, and a sense of rebirth.” Will the corpses we planted in the garden last year sprout and bloom? Adler believes, yes. As is common for Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble shows, which embrace multidisciplinary presentation, the performance will be accompanied by an art exhibition, including posters from the company’s history and prints by David Sarallo, who created the projected illustrations for “The Wasteland.”
CDE will share the bill with theater company CIRCA-Pintig, which presents a new one-act by Conrad A. Panganiban, “Daryo’s All-American Diner.” The one-hour play is about a Filipino American family struggling to keep their small business afloat. Adler says she felt the themes in “Daryo” pair well with her piece. “The story is about a family struggling and how racial hate is a continuing thing. To me, it sounded like ‘The Waste Land.’ At the end of the day, we all need to come together for humanity to have hope. We want to build community in the arts, with a capital unity.”
“The Wasteland” and “Daryo’s All-American Diner” at Ebenezer Lutheran Church, 1650 West Foster. Fridays and Saturdays May 5–20, 8pm. Advance tickets $20, $25 at the door. Students and seniors $13. Tickets at danztheatre.org.