There’s something deeply admirable about David Catlin’s “Icarus” even if, in its current state, the show, premiering at Chicago’s Lookingglass, comes off more numbing than bracing. A retelling of the Icarus myth ending in a child’s ill-fated flight that uses minimalist theatrical techniques combined with acrobatic movement, the production is a bit like watching a Mary Zimmerman piece on sedatives. But beneath its deliberate pace and muted emotions is an intriguing contemplation on a father’s almost unbearable grief as he deals with the loss of a child.
No set designer is credited, as the playing space remains bare, except for a few chairs and microphones, and a scrim in back for color projections or an image of the sun. At the start, a bed is rolled out with Patient X (Lawrence DiStasi), writhing in a straitjacket. From the clinical reports we hear in shards over the microphones, the man is experiencing the feeling of falling.
That contemporary bit sets the context for the myth. Only at the end will we learn more about Patient X, but in essence this establishes that the tale itself is intended as a processing of his experience — myth as individual and collective dreaming.
Catlin employs simple theatrical techniques to deal with the scale of the mythological elements — two performers combine to form the shape of a bull; a set of ropes becomes the Minotaur’s labyrinth; writing in chalk on the floor suggests the building of a grand palace, etc. And to simulate flying, we’re treated to aerial acrobatics on fabric ropes, which is really the only time the show breaks out of being a mood-piece into something more fully entertaining.
None of this represents a new approach to mythology — in fact, it’s the specialty of Lookingglass, with Zimmerman the theater’s most practiced purveyor. And the theater’s upcoming restaging of its “Hephaestus: A Circus Mythology Tale,” more successfully marries acrobatics with storytelling.
But “Icarus” has its own elegance, employing six multiskilled performers to fill in a far-ranging tale that finds its greatest focus in the way fathers react to the death of their children. Minos (Anthony Fleming III) responds to his son’s death with fury, calling for the sacrifice of more children to the Minotaur. Mistakenly believing his son to be dead, Aegeus (Adeoye) throws himself into the sea (yes, the one named after him).
Daedalus (DiStasi again) becomes the central figure, struggling throughout with the tension between work and parental obligations, and with the conflicting desires to encourage his adventurous child Icarus (Lindsey Noel Whiting) and to keep him safe. When he’s punished for helping Theseus kill the Minotaur, Daedalus is imprisoned in the labyrinth with Icarus, who gladly agrees to take on wings and fly to escape. The rest is history… or rather, mythology.
The narrative strands are not always as crisp as they need to be, nor does Catlin pull from the various threads enough metaphorical interpretation to make them more interesting on their own. But while it requires patience, the story is coherent, and while the piece remains emotionally distant on the surface, there’s a deep well of feeling that flows beneath. If that can be extricated, “Icarus” could fly.