Artist's rendering of the new Goodman Theatre complex
Artist's rendering of the new Goodman Theatre complex
According to the League of Chicago Theatres, the greater Chicago area is estimated to have some 200 theater companies, producing or presenting more than 12,000 performances each year of 700-plus shows to a total audience in excess of three million. "So, what's good?" the visitor wants to know. Indeed, the Chicago Office of Tourism reports that more travelers come to Chicago to enjoy live entertainment and cultural attractions than to attend sports events. When it comes to theater, we've got it good, and that ain't bad (as the old song goes, sort of).

The single most important item of the 2000-2001 season isn't a production, but a happening: the December opening of the $46 million Goodman Theatre complex on Dearborn Street. This will be a fitting new home for Chicago's oldest and largest resident troupe, now in its 75th year. The new Goodman instantly will become the principal anchor of the revived North Loop Theater District, presenting a nearly year-round schedule of performances in its 850-seat mainstage theater and its 400-seat "black box" space. The mainstage will open officially on December 11 with August Wilson's King Hedley II; the smaller venue will follow in February with a new work adapted and directed by the always-dazzling Mary Zimmerman. Another Goodman highlight will be the world premiere of Chicago playwright Rebecca Gilman's The Great Baseball Strike of 1994 (May 11-June 16).

John Mahoney
John Mahoney
Chicago's other big troupe, the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, celebrates its 25th anniversary this
Frank Galati
Frank Galati
season beginning with a world premiere musical, The Ballad of Little Jo, by Mike Reid and Sarah Schlessinger. Opening night is Sept. 24. A world premiere stage adaptation of Dickens' David Copperfield will be on view February 1-March 25 and, from April 24 to June 10, audiences will have a chance to see Steppenwolf ensemble members John Mahoney and Frank Galati acting together in Michael Healey's The Drawer Boy."

Steppenwolf practically invented the Chicago style of gritty "verismo" acting that has become the gold standard in America and is just what casting directors on both coasts look for when they hold auditions. Sometimes called "rock 'n' roll" acting, or even "scratch and sniff" acting, it's a far cry from classical technique but, nonetheless, presents a lofty challenge to any thespian visiting this city. At least three visitors this year really have their acting chops together, even if they don't scratch and sniff: Audiences will flock to see Kathleen Turner as Tallulah Bankhead in a pre-Broadway tryout of Tallulah (Shubert, November 14-26), Brian Bedford in The School for Scandal at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (November 21-January 14), and Julie Harris in the world premiere of Fossils by Claudia Allen at Victory Gardens Theater (May 11-June 17).

The Restoration classic with Bedford will be the first non-Shakespeare play ever produced on the mainstage at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. In just 12 years, CST has become not only a leading Chicago company but also one of the finest Shakespeare troupes in the world, praised even by British directors such as Sir Peter Hall. Having moved last year into a warm and handsome new $24 million theater at Navy Pier, CST saw its subscriber roster rocket up from 7,000 to 17,000. The troupe opens this year with more than 20,000 subscribers in its 525-seat house. As a special bonus, CST will present 18 performances of Peter Brook's Hamlet next spring--a run that already is sold out.

Chicago's other leading classically-based company, Court Theatre, demonstrates its much broader mandate by opening with Tom Stoppard's latest, The Invention of Love (September 6-October 15). But the highlight of the Court season may be the November 1-December 10 world premiere of a Philip Glass opera, In the Penal Colony, after Franz Kafka.


Smaller companies are tackling the classics, too, but in ways that are certain to have a twist to them. The Adult Swim Ensemble picks up where Othello left off with Paula Vogel's Desdemona, A Play About a Handkerchief (September 20-October 22), while Chicago's most gonzo troupe, the Defiant Theatre, mounts "The Scottish Play" (Macbeth) in October. The American Theatre Company will launch its 15th anniversary season with Beckett's Endgame (September 6-October 7), and Lifeline Theatre will revive its earlier hit version of Jane Eyre (January 12-April 1), adapted by Cristina Calvit.

Several of Chicago's most important theaters are based in the suburbs, particularly in the North Suburban areas. In Skokie, Northlight Theatre opens its 26th season with An Experiment with an Air Pump (September 27-November 5), a fascinating historical play by Shelagh Stephenson, and closes with the world premiere musical The Last Five Years (May 6-June 24) by Tony Award winning wunderkind Jason Robert Brown. Further north, the tiny Writers Theatre--located in the back of a Glencoe bookstore--will offer Austin Pendleton in his own play, Booth, about the famous American acting family.

In suburban Lincolnshire, the Marriott Theatre will present its usual powerful season of five lavishly produced musicals to its huge roster of 36,000 subscribers. Season highlights include the very first regional theater staging of Miss Saigon beginning next summer (August 1-November 4) and a spring Mame (March 21-May 20) starring three of Chicago's finest and most popular leading ladies: Hollis Resnik, Alene Robertson, and Paula Scrofano. The Marriott introduces a new artistic director, Rick Boynton, on January 1.

Each month, Chicago sees no fewer than 10 or 12 world premieres, many by a homegrown crop of outstanding writers. Among the significant new works by Chicago playwrights scheduled for this season are John Sussman's Nelson and Simone at Live Bait (September 11-October 29), about the 20-year love affair between Nelson Algren and Simone de Beauvoir; Streeterville at Timeline Theatre (February 15-March 18), a lively retelling by G. Riley Mills and Ralph Covert of the battle between Captain Streeter and Chicago's robber barons (a colorful episode in local history); and Blissfield at Victory Gardens (September 15-October 22), a mystery by Douglas Post, set in rural Illinois.

Other significant world premieres include Whitman, inspired by the great American poet, conceived by Eric Rosen for About Face Theatre (opening October 12); Jeffrey Sweet's The Action Against Sol Schumann at Victory Gardens (March 16-April 22); and Muscle, a musical about body obsession by James Lapine, William Finn, and Ellen Fitzhugh, at Pegasus Players next June.

One revival of particular note is And Neither Have I Wings to Fly, a work by Chicago actor/author Anne Noble Massey that won a slew of awards five years ago. A new production opens September 10 at Victory Gardens in a commercial run under the auspices of Michael Leavitt and Fox Theatricals, the Chicago-based team that brought Jekyll & Hyde and the recent revival of Death of a Salesman to Broadway. One suspects the producers may have Off-Broadway or national plans for Massey's funny and warm drama, set in 1950's Ireland.

Finally, sui generis, it's Dame Edna: The Royal Tour at the Shubert next spring (March 27-April 18)--perhaps the funniest show you'll ever see.