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Chicago Roundup

Business as usual: Scores of shows on the boards, and a Tony Award. logo
The Terrible Girls at About Face Theatre
Wowie-zowie! Winter and spring in Chicago have been crammed with incident and jammed with shows. February saw Mel Brooks, Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick and The Producers take over the Cadillac Palace Theatre for a month, the only pre-New York stop for the Broadway bound show. To wonderful reviews--this show never had out-of-town problems! --The Producers easily sold out the 2,350-seat house for its entire run.

March saw stagehands and carpenters at the Goodman Theatre (Chicago's flagship not-for-profit) go on strike, walking a picket line around the new, $46 million complex in order to win higher wages and a union contract. The strike was settled after 45 days on April 18. The employees got their first-ever three-year union contract after compromising with Goodman on wages and jurisdictional issues.

Also in March, we mourned the death of retired journalist Glenna Syse, who was the chief theater and dance critic for The Chicago Sun-Times for 30 years. Syse served terms on the Tony Awards nominating committee and the jury of the Pulitzer Prize for drama. She is credited with using her bully newspaper pulpit not only to review, but also to promote Chicago's Off-Loop theater industry; a series of articles she wrote in the 1970s led to revisions in the City of Chicago building codes that legalized non-traditional performance spaces in storefronts, warehouses, old bowling alleys, and factories. A celebration of life for Glenna Syse was held on Shakespeare's birthday (April 23) at Victory Gardens Theater, one of the very playhouses her crusading saved.

April was a key month for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which officially celebrated its 25th anniversary with a lavish black-tie gala that raised $1.65 million in one night--more than 13% of the troupe's annual budget. The night included the United States premiere of The Drawer Boy by Canadian playwright Michael Healey, featuring Frank Galati in his first acting role in 14 years. Even in Chicago--let alone in Hollywood and on Broadway--there's a generation of theatergoers who don't realize that Galati, a Tony Award- and Jefferson Award-winning writer and director (The Grapes of Wrath, Ragtime), has a long and distinguished résumé as an actor.

Chicago rounded off the major theater news stories in May with the announcement that the aforementioned Victory Gardens Theater had won the 2001 Special Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre. Founded in 1974 by a consortium of eight directors, actors and writers (including Grease co-author Warren Casey), Victory Gardens is a seminal Off-Loop troupe that continues to nurture local talent and new work through a unique Playwrights Ensemble. On a modest budget ($1.8 million for Fiscal 2002), the company produces seven shows a year and conducts numerous developmental workshops and readings. The Tony Award will be presented to artistic director Dennis Zacek and managing director Marcelle McVay at the televised Tony Award ceremonies on June 3. Nominations and voting for the Regional Theatre Tony Award are conducted in great confidentiality by the American Theatre Critics Association, which recommends the winner to the Tony Award authorities. Chicago is the only city with three winners of the Regional Theatre Tony Award to date: Steppenwolf (1985), Goodman (1992), and now Victory Gardens.

Of course, Chicagoans had shows to see along the way. There was everything from the sublime (legendary director Peter Brook's reduction of Hamlet at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, May 10-June 2) to the ridiculous (a naked male porn star in a jailhouse comedy called Jeff Stryker Does Hard Time, April 19-May 13 at Bailiwick Arts Center). Some theatergoers confused the latter with the Lookingglass Theatre Company adaptation of the Victorian novel Hard Times, which opened April 28, prompting a certain critic to remind readers that one show concerned big dicks and the other big Dickens. You pays yer money, you takes yer chances!

More than 40 shows opened in Chicago in March, more than 30 in April, and at least one-per-day in May. Among the most visually dazzling was Princess Turandot at the European Repertory Company, April 2-May 6. This was a lively, modern adaptation of the mid-18th Century work by Carlo Gozzi that also inspired the Puccini opera Turandot. As staged by ERC, it was a bright and gaudy patchwork of red drapes and bamboo poles by scenic designer Stephanie Nelson and red, blue, and gold costumes by Natasha Vuchurovich Djukich. Director Luda Lopatina definitely stuck with Gozzi's original intent of low comedy, avoiding the high drama of the Puccini version.

One of Chicago's resident gonzo troupes, the Defiant Theatre, offered a devastating production of Cleansed, the 1998 play by the manic depressive British author Sarah Kane, who killed herself in 1999. Kane's gruesome Grand Guignol is set in a mental institution where a diseased doctor inflicts dismemberment, rape, beatings, drugging, despair, and emotional violence upon his passive patients without a shred of redemption or a moment of retribution. While I find Kane's views morally and spiritually unacceptable, there is no question that she possessed first-rate dramatic instincts and knew how to use the tools of theater to gut-wrenching effect. Nor is there any question about the grim integrity and honesty of the Defiant Theatre production. For those who can take it, Cleansed runs through May 28 at the Viaduct Theatre.

Another moment from The Terrible Girls
About Face Theatre, an award-winning troupe that dramatizes serious literature on gay and lesbian themes, currently offers (through May 27) The Terrible Girls, adapted and directed by Kyle Hall from the post-industrial lesbian fairy tale novel of Rebecca Brown. Hall is a winning product of the Performance Studies program at Northwestern University (recent MacArthur "Genius Grant" fellow Mary Zimmerman is the current, stellar example), which encourages a highly pictorial staging technique that makes heavy use of aural and visual elements in addition to (or, frequently, instead of) standard narrative dialogue. Thus, The Terrible Girls is a beautiful objet d'art presented in a deep shadow box of a set by Geoffrey M. Curley and choreographed to the original music of Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman. But those not familiar with the work of Rebecca Brown won't have a clue as to what's going on, or why or how; Hall's adaptation is a series of mostly disconnected snapshots from the novel, rather than a narrative.

If you want narrative, you can find it (through June 10) in The Drawer Boy at Steppenwolf, where Frank Galati is onstage with fellow ensemble member John Mahoney and visiting artist Johnny Galecki (of Roseanne). Mahoney, famous for his TV work on Frasier, still lives in the Chicago area and has performed more roles at Steppenwolf than any other member of the ensemble. The Drawer Boy is easy enough to follow; indeed, the plot is a thin one. Set in the Canadian farmlands of Ontario in 1972, it's precipitated when a young actor (Galecki) randomly knocks on a farmhouse door. He asks to stay a few days to learn about farming and farmers for a play he's to be in. The brain-damaged Angus (Galati) and the crusty Morgan (Mahoney) invite him in, providing he does his share of the chores. As it turns out, the actor serves as a catalyst for revelations of the hidden secrets of Angus and Morgan dating back to their Depression Era boyhoods and World War II service, including failed romances and a bond thicker than blood. Along the way, the play suggests the healing powers of the living arts and the importance of storytelling within the social fabric.

Sparely written, The Drawer Boy seems larger than it actually is. But Healey leaves a great deal of the play to the subtext--the unspoken things the characters really feel and mean--which is to say, to the actors and directors. The three Steppenwolf performers don't fail him. Galecki's character is the slightest of the three, for the play isn't about him; nevertheless, he performs his chores well, with good comic timing and an ingratiating nerdiness. Mahoney, known for his brilliant comedy work on Frasier, frequently bites into serious roles when onstage at Steppenwolf, and such is the case here. While Morgan has a few comic moments, mostly he is gruff, biting, protective, and defensive--and Mahoney does clean, simple, intense work (as usual). Galati, returning to the stage after such a long hiatus, likewise is a skilled character actor; his performance seems studied and affected only until one buys into the rhythms of Angus. Galati grows in strength as the play progresses, in part because Healey unleashes some of the secrets that enlarge Angus' character. Under the direction of Anna D. Shapiro, the character work of all three is delicate in keeping with the semi-pastoral quality of the The Drawer Boy, which has insight and some depth but is nonetheless a small, domestic story. One wishes one could see these three--especially Galati and Mahoney--in a larger and more dazzling work.

Upcoming Chicago theater events in May: a new version of Ajax by Sophocles, presented by The Hypocrites at the Viaduct Theatre (through June 3); Peter Handke's rarely-seen Kaspar at Tinfish Theatre Company (May 11-June 29); a new Claudia Allen play, Fossils, starring Julie Harris at Victory Gardens (May 21-June 17); the world premiere of The Last Five Years, a chamber musical by Tony Award winner Jason Robert Brown (Parade) at Northlight Theatre (May 23-June 24).

In June, we'll see a revival of a stunning, testosterone-driven ensemble work about European soccer violence, Among the Thugs, a Next Theatre production at the Goodman (June 1-July 8); Gogol's comic masterpiece The Government Inspector at Terrapin Theatre (June 3-July 15); the world premiere of Muscle, a new musical by Tony Award winners William Finn and James Lapine, courtesy of the Pegasus Players (June 13-July 22); and the world premiere of a revue of Barry Manilow songs, Could It Be Magic?, opening June 17 at the Mercury Theatre.

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