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Review Fri Jan 09 2009

Review: Look, What I Don't Understand

One-man show.  To the casual theater-goer the phrase is an immediate buzzkill: it conjures images of a spotlight, an endless monologue, perhaps some pointless nudity.  It also screams vanity project.

lookwhatidont.jpg

And upon entering the Athenaeum and seeing the elevated box, framed in chicken wire, where Anthony Nikolchev begins his self-written one-man show, you think, "Is he going to do the entire play from inside there?"

But within the first two minutes Nikolchev jumps out and flips the 10-foot-tall contraption loudly on its side, revealing the kind of stage instrument that dialogue can transform into a podium, a gallows, a jail cell, or a truck.

Thus begins Look, What I Don't Understand, a 90-minute play that is the materialization of a summer spent in Eastern Europe, where Wesleyan graduate Nikolchev researched his family's illegal emigration from Soviet-controlled Bulgaria.

Nikolchev plays his grandfather, Nikola Nikolchev, as he attempts to enter the United States after fleeing Bulgaria, then Congo, with his wife and two children. But to explain how Nikola arrives at the border gates, Nikolchev ventures back to a World War II battlefield, to a prison where his grandfather's dissenting relatives were detained and tortured, and finally to a cramped Bulgarian apartment where an increasingly paranoid Nikola resolves to meet his wife in Kinshasa.

Look has five directors, which may explain why, as Nikolchev maneuvers his way through more than 15 characters, some of the back-and-forth is confusing (several of the Bulgarian characters are identifiable only by a limp or a stutter while some of the pantomiming is excessive). But as the play whittles the periphery down to a Kinshasa hotel room where Nikola and his family witness a mass execution, you forget the town square massacre is actually just one guy on stage with a wooden box.

No spotlights, no monologues, no nudity. And as it touches on the themes of hope (with America as its mascot), conspiracy, individual freedom, bureaucracy, torture and displacement, it's definitely not a vanity project, either.

Runs until February 1, 2009; at The Athenaeum Theatre Studio 1, located at 2936 N. Southport Chicago, IL 60657. For Tickets call Ticketmaster at 312-902-1500, or visit www.ticketmaster.com.

 
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