Playwright: The Universes. At: Victory Gardens Theater at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.. Phone: 773-871-3000 or www.victorygardens.org; $20-$40. Runs through: Feb. 26
Victory Gardens subscribers might be forgiven thinking that they stumbled into the Lincoln Park Poetry Slam by mistake. No reason for confusion, thoughthe venerable theater company is still in the business of doing plays. Indeed, a yuppies-on-the-couch comedy was all set to open in the early spring slot, but when its author declared a no-show, Chay Yew, VG's newly-inaugurated artistic director, looked to his former colleagues for a ready-made import to fill out the season.
The program presented by the four-member Universes ensemble adheres to the Slam's spoken-word performance framework in that the bulk of their text is composed of imagery-infused talking-at-ya monologues, bridged by interludes of orchestrated speech, a cappella song-medleys and percussion-based instrumentals. The theme upon which these are grouped begins with Hurricane Katrina, expands to encompass New Orleans before and after the devastation of 2005, then addresses the upheaval infecting all of America.
Among the mostly first-person observations are the recollections of a boy whose father perished in his attempt to rescue others (accompanied by a mournful mash-up of "Papa was a Rolling Stone" and "Rolling On The River"); the ruminations of a Jackson Square vendor selling spurious relics to ghoulish tourists eager to buy a fragment of the tragedy; and the spectral lament of legendary Voudou priestess Marie Laveau, hearing her drowning supplicants cry out to her in vain. In the aftermath, military veterans return home to search the ruins of their lost families, a stand-up comedian riffs on inhumane urban renewal and obstructive health care, and Latinos anticipate a shift of power following the diaspora of displaced refugees, as vocalist Mildred Ruiz delivers a searing flamenco-based cante jondo.
When you try to be about everything, however, you risk being about nothing. There is no denying the Universes' skilled artistry (and impressive stamina), but the show's 90-minute running time takes its toll on both performers and audience, making for a drop in momentum during the last 15 minutes before the quartet rallies for a rousing hand-clapping finale whose exhortative refrain, "Everybody row!" sweeps usall of us, jaded theaTAHgoers and teenagers too young to get into the Green Mill alikein a flood, not of festering destruction this time, but of the ecstatic vitality that heralds healing and resurrection.