Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Pictured: Kat Christensen. Photo by Anna Gelman.
By Bec Willett
When it comes to classical male European playwrights I’ve never had trouble connecting with the work of August Strindberg and Henrik Ibsen the way I have with Anton Chekhov. For some reason his work has always lived in a superfluous bubble, echoes of characters and plot points never quite sinking in no matter how hard I try. Organic Theater Company’s WHY DO YOU ALWAYS WEAR BLACK?, a devised piece exploring Chekhov’s women, has changed that.
As with most pieces based on someone or something, it helps to be familiar with their work. While it definitely makes it more enjoyable to have a sense of the staging idioms of Chekhov’s work – the family tableaus, the pregnant pauses of longing, the poofing of petticoats – my lack of intimacy with the details of the plays themselves made this performance no less engaging.
Bursting with energy and intention onto a traditional living room set, this ensemble of four: Kat Christensen, Nyssa Lowenstein, Ariana Silvan-Grau, Taylor Wisham, and their director Anna Gelman have expertly crafted an exploration of Chekhov’s text and context that highlights its relevance, especially to the contemporary female experience. Knitted together with care by Gelman’s directorial precision with image, movement and stillness, it feels as though we are experiencing an intimate conversation with these characters’ deepest secrets. A simple yet effective analogy for a patriarchy-fueled female competition, we see them desperately try to find a place of belonging as they race each other to take on different physical positions that never quite fit, regardless of effort. We mourn with Christensen’s Irina as she invites us to listen to a song that reminds her of her father, “This is it. The whole song is like this. It doesn’t have a big middle or a big end.” she weeps, before stopping it, embarrassed. Another glimpse into deepest yearnings is found in Lowenstein’s confession of the name she longs to be called – a name that includes her rather than others. She tells us how her brother has their family last name but “mine is modified to tell you I’m a woman”. Throughout the hour-long production, a clock ticks loudly, sometimes mockingly, sometimes a metronomic friend. It seems to ask: when will things change for women? Is it time yet? What about now?
Just as with Angela Enos’ costume design that pulls from the fashions and fabric of present and the past to fuse them together, WHY DO YOU ALWAYS WEAR BLACK? morphs the female experience of the past and present to show just how little has changed. I think Chekhov might have finally sunk in.
WHY DO YOU ALWAYS WEAR BLACK runs through April 8th. For more information visit