Arthur Miller(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Arthur Miller
(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Once the Labor Day weekend is over, Chicago theater really cranks up as the many subscription companies launch their new seasons. A typical month offers 40 mainstream shows, plus another 30 late-night shows, sketch comedy offerings, and kids' shows. Yep, there's a lot to see. The League of Chicago Theatres figures the 200 producing companies in the Chicago metro area stage 800-plus shows each year.

The 2004-2005 season begins with a Battle of Big Names among Chicago's three Tony Award-winning theaters. The smallest of the three, Victory Gardens Theater, opens with The Family Gold (September 20-October 24), a new comedy by Annie Reiner, daughter of famous laugh-maker Carl Reiner and sister of the equally celebrated Rob Reiner. The Family Gold stars Broadway and Hollywood veteran Harold Gould.

A week later, Steppenwolf Theatre Company opens The Dresser, by Ronald Harwood, starring John Mahoney as a crusty English dramatic actor who makes life Hell for his young assistant, yet teaches him life lessons. The younger man is played by Tracy Letts, the author of Killer Joe and Bug, two plays which have enjoyed successful New York Off-Broadway runs. The Dresser runs September 26-November 14.

But bragging rights go to the Goodman Theatre, Chicago's oldest and largest resident company. Finishing the Picture, a world premiere by the great Arthur Miller, opens the Goodman season, beginning previews on September 21 with an official opening on October 5. The cast features Scott Glenn, Stacy Keach, Linda Lavin, Stephen Lang, Matthew Modine, and Harris Yulin. The director is Goodman artistic director Robert Falls, himself a Tony Award winner. Coincidentally, Scott Glenn starred Off-Broadway in Tracy Letts's Killer Joe.

There's plenty of early-season variety beyond the three Tony Award troupes, too. Among anticipated September openings are: a new musical revue about the President, W, at Bailiwick Repertory, September 7-October 31; a lavish The Merry Wives of Windsor at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, September 10-November 21, starring celebrated local actor Greg Vinkler as Falstaff; the first post-Broadway regional production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard, at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, September 15-November 7; and Pulitzer Prize winner Nilo Cruz's Two Sisters and a Piano at the Apple Tree Theatre in Highland Park.

Indeed, variety is what the Windy City does best, offering audiences Broadway productions in the large, restored playhouses of the downtown Loop Theater District, plus scores of Off-Loop and Off-off-Loop shows at increasingly small neighborhood playhouses, which may offer increasingly edgy fare as well. And then there's the Rhinoceros Theatre Festival, an annual event staged by Chicago's oldest established permanent avant-garde company, the Curious Theatre Branch. The 16th annual Rhino Fest runs September 17-November 20 at the Curious Theatre on Chicago's Far North Side.

This year's galloping Rhino Fest offers 17 programs running from one night only to 10 performances. The material includes new work by solo writer/performers, new plays (there's one about why Mark Twain wore white suits out of season called White Suit Science), musical cabaret, vaudeville, story telling, and even some classics (Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood and Brecht's poetry). However, this year's Rhino appears to center on the "16 candles" theme, including 16 Grandmothers (September 18), 16 Students (October 10), and 16 Assholes (November 7), featuring stories by or about those respective categories of individuals.

Addiction. We're not just talking substance abuse, but -- would you believe? -- addiction to Capri pants and telemarketing calls. These, and other addictions, are the subjects of Last Call, a festival of one-act plays presented by Brown Couch Theatre Company, September 10-25. Last Call features 25 actors in 10 plays no more than 10 minutes in length. Brown Couch will donate $1 for each ticket sold ($10-$12) to a local food pantry.

Finally, the City of Chicago presents its sixth annual World Music Festival, September 17-23, showcasing traditional and contemporary sounds from many of the world's diverse cultures (fusion, Latin, Afro-Pop, etc.). The Festival includes a mix of daytime and evening events, free and ticketed concerts, live radio broadcasts, and workshops at venues such as the Chicago Cultural Center (in The Loop), the Old Town School of Folk Music, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and Under the Picasso (Daley Civic Center Plaza). More information is available by calling (877) 244-2246 or by visiting www.877chicago.com.