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Home Features Theatre Reid: Great Theatre in a Not So Great Year
Reid: Great Theatre in a Not So Great Year Print E-mail
Written by Kerry Reid   
Thursday, 30 December 2010 11:04

Toward the very end of the press performance of Steppenwolf’s spellbinding current production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, as Tracy Letts’ surprisingly fearsome George approached Amy Morton’s Martha to drop a blanket over her hunched, defeated shoulders, something unbelievable, yet perhaps inevitable, happened: a cell phone began ringing in the audience.

Once I got over my first feral instinct (“Find cell phone owner – dismember cell phone owner!”), I realized that it was a pretty good metaphor for theatre in Chicago in 2010. Some absolutely gorgeous memories and heartening news, interrupted by nagging irritations and rumblings of discontent. Oh, and heartbreaking loss, too.

Let’s face it: this was a pretty horrific year for the planet overall—from the earthquake in Haiti to the BP oil disaster in the Gulf (and let us not forget the volcano in Iceland which, while not deadly, did ground some performers for the Chicago Improv Festival.

In light of those cataclysms, writing about theatre (especially in a town where the biggest news isn’t the ballooning budget and parade of performer injuries for the Spidey musical) continues to feel like a pretty sweet gig. And at risk of being accused of parochialism, I still think Chicago is the best city to do it in. Judging from the comments I heard during the Theatre Communications Group annual conference here in June, a lot of people from out of town also think we’ve got it pretty good—and they come here looking for fresh material to import to their own towns. (If you can’t get tickets for Virginia Woolf at the ’wolf, Pam MacKinnon’s towering production moves to Arena Stage in February—where it follows on the heels of Mary Zimmerman’s The Arabian Nights.)

Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, which started out in 2009 at Victory Gardens and earned five Jeff Awards in October, got an off-Broadway production at Second Stage and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Craig Wright’s Mistakes Were Made, which started out last fall at A Red Orchid Theatre, moved to the Barrow Street Theatre in New York, with its original director (Dexter Bullard) and cast (Michael Shannon, Mierka Girten, and puppeteer Sam Deutsch) intact—essentially picking up the Chicago-transfer baton from David Cromer’s long-running production of Our Town (first produced by The Hypocrites in 2008), in which Shannon also took a turn as the Stage manager.

Shannon’s performance as creepy self-flagellating federal agent Nelson Van Alden on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” made for must-see television for some of us as well. Other actors and writers with Chicago roots who made the leap to the small screen included Jon Michael Hill of Steppenwolf Theatre, who landed a starring role on ABC’s “Detroit 1-8-7” (after winning a Tony nomination for the Broadway run of Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts); Michael Patrick Thornton, artistic director for The Gift Theatre Company, who played prickly Dr. Gabriel Fife on ABC’s “Private Practice” last season and may be returning to the series later this season; and Ellen Fairey, who landed a writing job with Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie.” (Fairey’s play Graceland was a hit in 2009 for Profiles Theatre and received a subsequent production—her New York premiere—at LCT3, the Lincoln Center’s new-plays venue.)

And Cromer followed in Zimmerman’s footsteps, becoming the second Chicago-bred theatre director to win the coveted MacArthur “genius” fellowship. Cromer returned home from New York to stage a breathtaking revival of A Streetcar Named Desire at Writers Theatre, which is topping best-of lists all over the place, and he followed that triumph by cramming about eleventy billion fringe actors into Angel Island for his production of Cherrywood at Mary Arrchie Theatre

It wouldn’t be a year in theatre without controversy, and probably the one that got the most play was Jason Southerland’s production of M.E.H. Lewis’ Return to Haifa at Next Theatre, which ended up with Southerland leaving the artistic director’s post at Next amid plagiarism charges. Jennifer Avery took on the job in the wake of the debacle and Next appears to be back on track under her leadership. (They open J.T. Rogers’ drama Madagascar on January 20.)

We said hello to a few new faces: Steve Albert took over as executive director at Court Theatre. Leslie Brown joined Piven Theatre in the same capacity. Timothy Douglas took over the artistic director’s job at Remy Bumppo from founder James Bohnen. And a changing of the guard is imminent at Victory Gardens, as Dennis Zacek shepherds his last season as founding artistic director.

There were some interesting games of venue dosey-do as well. Village Players Theatre in Oak Park had to shut down last spring after facing financial shortfalls, but Circle Theatre stepped into the breach, claiming the spot as an interim home. In other suburban-space news, both Citadel Theatre in Lake Forest and Clockwise Theatre in Waukegan nailed down new spaces. Skokie Theatre had some white-knuckle times with the threat of foreclosure, but by year’s end the theatre management had worked out a new deal with the creditors to keep the lights on in what has become an oft-praised venue for cabaret and comedy.

The Lakeshore Theater wasn’t so lucky—the comedy venue in Lakeview closed its doors in early April. And the Apollo goes on the auction block in January.

Griffin Theatre finally emerged from the bowels of city bureaucracy and won the go-ahead to transform an old cop shop at Foster and Damen into a new space. Walter Stearns left his post as artistic director for Porchlight Music Theatre to work with a group of investors to bring in shows to the Mercury, which had been shuttered for months. Former Mercury owner Michael Cullen suffered a major stroke in January. At this writing, we hear that Cullen is making good progress in his rehabilitation and expects to be home soon.

The old Drury Lane Theater at Water Tower Place, purchased by Broadway in Chicago, was renamed the Broadway Playhouse, got a spiffy new minimalist makeover (no more red velvet and crystal chandeliers), and kicked things off with the thrilling acrobatic show Traces by French-Canadian company Seven Digits. The last theatre left in the Drury Lane family, Drury Lane Oakbrook, continues to step up its game under executive producer Kyle DeSantis—their production of Ragtime won raves and seven Jeff Awards.

Stage 773, under the management of Brian Posen and Lukaba Productions, is gearing up in 2011 to transform the old Theatre Building Chicago into spaces friendlier to performers and patrons alike. And Profiles Theatre took over the old Stage Left Theatre space and gained, literally, a Second Stage.

The reason Stage Left abandoned their old Lakeview storefront has to do with one of the happiest developments in venue news we got all year: Jeremy Wechsler’s Theater Wit, after many years of struggle and near-misses in searching for a permanent space (much of it documented by Wechsler over the years for Performink), finally opened its gorgeous three-theatre venue in the building formerly occupied by Bailiwick Chicago. The space provides homes for resident companies, including Stage Left Theatre and Bohemian Theatre Ensemble. Shattered Globe was originally slated as a resident company at Theater Wit. After a long radio silence (and reports that the board had dissolved the company), they’ve re-emerged and plan to present Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane in January at the Athenaeum.

In more “reports of my death are greatly exaggerated” news, Pegasus Players, which had seemed moribund earlier this year, announced that they are going to take over the Beacon Street Theatre currently occupied by Black Ensemble Theater. BET itself broke ground on its new $16 million arts center in Uptown, and they plan to be moved in by September 2011.

The heartbreaking part of any year is saying goodbye, and the death of Guy Adkins at 41 from colon cancer was a dagger to the heart. We also lost many members and former members of the Chicago theatre community, young and old, including Tab Baker, James Deuter, Manny Sosa, Abe Mendoza, Mark Cullison, former Jeff committee member Baird Brown, and producer/director George Keathley, who turned the Ivanhoe Theater on Wellington into a major player in the off-Loop theatre scene of the 1970s. (Like so many spaces, the Ivanhoe too is gone—it’s now Binny’s Beverage Depot.)

As I write this, perhaps the most unsettling news of all is hitting the theatre community: as reported by Jim DeRogatis of WBEZ, the city is dismantling the stellar Department of Cultural Affairs. That’s more than just a cell phone ringing—that should be a wake-up call for all of us that the great cultural resources of our city, like all resources on the planet, are vulnerable to shifting political and economic tides.

I love theatre—especially Chicago theatre—because it’s a place where the ephemeral and the eternal twine together. It’s a place where people do ridiculously difficult things for ridiculously low material rewards and somehow make it all look easy—and fun. It’s one place where the world can make a little more sense, at least for a short time. Playwrights die, but plays live on. Actors die, but roles remain immortal. But none of this magic happens in a vacuum, and with a new conservative Congress taking the reins in January and new mayor heading into office next year, it’s a good time to remember what Mother Jones said: “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”

See you at the theatre—and on the barricades.