“We look at what aspects of a story are contemporary,” Anne DeAcetis explains. “Then we develop a vision that drives that relevance. It's not timeless. It's now. And we create our own landscape for it.”
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PerformInk April 9, 1999

Blood Line: The Oedipus/Antigone Story – running through April 25 at the new Viaduct Theatre – marks Thirteenth Tribe’s fourth fully staged production here since the activist-oriented troupe’s founding three years ago. Yet because their previous works left such a psychologically explosive impression, it feels like they have been part of Chicago’s daring theatrical landscape for eons.

After much contemplation, I realized that a Thirteenth Tribe production never entirely leaves the viewer. Instead its paradoxical images and provocative ideas get absorbed into our collective fiber until another catalyst draws them out and forces us to reassess the state of humanity in a new light.

The Wicker Park-based company was formed by a group of theatre artists who completed their undergraduate work at Hampshire and Mount Holyoke colleges. They opted for Chicago because of its well-known openness toward theatrical experimentation. They debuted in 1996 with The Precipice, an original collaborative piece addressing the onset of gentrification in Wicker Park, at the Chopin Theatre’s lower-level space.

Founding member Anne DeAcetis acknowledges that very few people saw the show. Nevertheless, it provided Thirteenth Tribe with an opportunity to integrate its ensemble’s eclectic performing styles and solidify its mission to present plays of contemporary relevance in a pungently suggestive site-specific realm.

I discovered Thirteenth Tribe one sultry summer afternoon in August, 1996 when they presented an intensely fearless production of Jean Genet’s The Balcony at the Chopin basement theatre with an imposing series of jagged mirrors positioned at accusatory angles around the audience. It was here that I first experienced the company’s grinding sense of paradox – loudly iconoclastic yet emotionally subdued, urgent but not in-your-face. In my review, I commented that “director Joanna Settle has guided her vinyl-bedecked cast methodically through Genet’s proclivity for combining the microscopically subtle with the grossly overblown.”

One year later, ensemble member Megan Rodgers wrote Bombs in the Ladies Room, a multimedia performance piece exploring political repression in which she portrayed a collage of international women imprisoned for varying degrees of terrorist activities. Settle directed the site-specific work in the claustrophobic confines of Wicker park’s Yello Gallery, where the audience experienced the mind-numbing horrors of sensory deprivation.

Shortly after, founding member/managing director Katie Taber co-adapted Marguerite Duras’ World War II memoir, The War, which was mounted as a work-in-progress.

Then artistic director Settle – who received her master’s degree in directing from the Juilliard School – spent a good part of last year directing the poorly managed South American tour of Grease (produced by Massine/Lemanski). To get a sense of the intellectual weight of Settle’s work, one need only listen to her vision for the typically commercialized fluff known as Grease: “I approached it as an examination of the horrors of youth,” she states with razor-sharp directness. “Grease is not a lighthearted musical. It’s about youth turning to itself and fighting for its life.”

Settle returned to Chicago to embark on Thirteenth Tribe’s latest epic project Blood Line. While serving as assistant director to JoAnne Akalaitis for The Iphigenia Cycle at Court Theatre, she met Court’s founding director Nicholas Rudall, who agreed to provide fresh translations of Sophocle’s Oedipus and Antigone tragedies for Thirteenth Tribe’s highly stylized yet earthy staging in the expansive industrial Viaduct space, which they rehabbed.

“I’m very design-centric,” says Settle. “I chose this space because it looked like Thebes. I wanted to go into the floor, the walls and the ceiling. So I wanted a room that could take it.

“I’m interested in the relationship between the ordinary and the extraordinary. I need a play that has room for me. You won’t see me hanging around Mamet. But you will see me hanging around Beckett–and the sentences are still short.”

Sophocles has given Settle a vast canvas on which to paint her spare, daunting vision of familial dysfunction that seeps into an entire society. A minimalist extravaganza, Blood Line is never conscious of its wrenching innovations. The floor is packed with tons of gravel, creating a hostile soundscape over which the actors must shout. According to Settle, the crunching symbolizes Oedipus’ agonized thoughts. The chorus, therefore, exists inside the incestuous king’s brain. At one point, the back doors swing open to reveal mini bonfires against a naturalistic outdoor backdrop of modern industrialism. She views light as a verb, and actively uses it to sculpt bodies in space and slice through her characters. blood Line’s aura feels coldly futuristic, yet the overpowering weight of history envelopes us all. Settle will argue that “I don’t try to contemporize anything. I read the play.”

DeAcetis, who portrays the self-delusionally noble Antigone with nihilistic abandon, unravels Thirteenth Tribe’s time-crushing mystery: “We look at what aspects of a story are contemporary,” she explains. “Then we develop a vision that drives that relevance. It’s not timeless. It’s now. And we create our own landscape for it.”

- Lucia Mauro -