Melbourne, Australia-based performance group one step at a time like this has returned to Chicago Shakespeare Theater for a third time, with a specially commissioned audio exploration of Navy Pier and its environs for Shakespeare 400 Chicago. In 2011, one step at a time like this brought their pedestrian-driven exploration of a series of cities, en route, to Chicago, and, in 2014, collaborated with Chicago Shakespeare Theater to produce another ambulatory, immersive interaction with Measure for Measure, entitled Since I Suppose. A departure from both of these previous immersive experiences, undreamed shores confined itself to a smaller geographic area, even as it ranged across a wider array of Shakespearean texts.
Participants in the audio-guided journey were directed to convene at the large, orange letter “P” at the easternmost edge of Polk Bros. Park, across from the main entrance to Navy Pier. Once there, a guide took the participant off to a mosaic-decorated concrete banquette to the north, (I noticed the word “walking” – a key part of the experience – in the mosaic near where we sat down together) to orient them to the use of a Motorola hand-held audio device and headphones. Once oriented, the participant was on their own, with only the audio, the sensory input of the Pier, and their own thoughts for the next 70 minutes.
The Tempest and The Comedy of Errors, both of which use shipwrecks as plot points, loomed large in the audio pastiche that directed the journey. One of the earliest quotes, however, came from Titus Andronicus: “For now I stand as one upon a rock, / Environed with a wilderness of sea” (3.1.93-94). As participants stood at the western edge of Polk Bros. Park, facing the main entrance to the Pier to the east, they were invited to contemplate the fact that the place where they were standing did not exist a thousand years ago. A thousand years ago, it would not even have been a rock, environed by an inland sea, but the inland sea itself. The audio narrative reminded us that we were standing on landfill, the silver lining pulled from the dark cloud of the Chicago Fire, and an isthmus of land (re?)claimed from the water as the debris from that disaster was shoveled in, clearing out the old, burned city to make way for the new, modern one. The rock environed by the lake is manmade: concrete.
And there are shipwrecks in this inland sea, too. As participants progressed east, onto the Pier, the audio guide discussed the thousand shipwrecks – some as yet undiscovered – strewn across the bottom of the lake. Zigging and zagging through the Pier, the participant started out like a slightly eccentric tourist: climbing stairs outdoors, lying down beneath the Ferris wheel to contemplate its breathtaking sweep from the maximal angle, going in glass doors that give onto the interior pedway, pausing outside of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater lobby. Eventually, the journey became less conventional: the participant was directed onto elevators that took them to abandoned corridors where they were eerily advised to try all available elevator buttons for the return journey since “at least one of them never works”; concrete service stairs in which your footfalls echoed in the empty, uninhabited space, spray-on insulation overhead, banquet tables stacked to your left with the haphazard remains of some social event: two wine glasses incongruously sparkling in the gloom.
Outdoors again, on the northern side of the Pier, the participant was asked to contemplate the lake as a living thing, sending distress calls through its changing surface. The audio guide included an interview with someone unidentified explaining that people in Chicago (including me) exult in the lake’s color shift from briny green to “Caribbean blue.” However, this color change, while perhaps pretty, actually conveys grim news about the state of life in the lake. The lake is green when the plankton that live in it are thriving. It turns blue when the invasive zebra mussels, who have hitched rides into Lake Michigan on cargo vessels from Asia, gain the upper hand, and eat their way to dominance.
“All the world’s a stage” (As You Like It 2.7.139) the participant heard Jaques explain, describing the seven stages of man, as they stood in an empty meeting room overlooking the Skyline Stage. I amused myself as I listened by trying to match the seven stages of man described in the audio to the hula hoop performer, juggler, and living statue scattered across the square below me, tourists photographing them and/or themselves with them, and Navy Pier staff in reflective vests and nametags actually approaching the charcoal gray living statue to knock on her face, tap on her hat, to see if they could disrupt her silent, still performance with their antics, but they could not. She remained immovable as the concrete slab of the Pier beneath her feet.
The performance ended outdoors, at the easternmost edge of the Pier, facing the lighthouse, and the breakwater that separates the harbor around the Pier from the deep blue wilds of the lake. Midway through the experience, however, the participant was asked to stand just east of the Ferris wheel, on the upper level of the parking deck, and take in the skyline to the west. Here, we heard a description of Tarsus from Pericles applied to Chicago:
A city on whom plenty held full hand,
For riches strew’d herself even in the streets;
Whose towers bore heads so high they kiss’d the clouds,
And strangers ne’er beheld but wondered at. (1.4.22-25)
In the old English elegiac verse form ubi sunt, the poet offered a lyric catalog of personal connections and material possessions in order to record their loss. An ubi sunt lyric in reverse, undreamed shores asked us to contemplate the riches strewed in our streets, the cloud-capped towers, the almost obscene opulence of natural and manmade beauty all around us, none of which was here a thousand years ago. What will be here a thousand years hence? Turn, now, and look at the deep blue of the lake. Full fathom five nothing remains but what suffers a sea change into something whose strangeness we would do well to contemplate, lest we, too, fade into the blue.
Regina Buccola is a professor and chair of the department of literature and languages at Roosevelt University in Chicago, where she also serves as core faculty in women’s and gender studies. Her most recent publications include (as editor) A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Critical Guide and she co-edited, with Peter Kanelos, Chicago Shakespeare Theater: Suiting the Action to the Word. She serves as the scholar-in-residence at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.