In Chicago, theater scene brims with variety

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CHICAGO -- To arrive in the Loop by train (subway, I'd call it) from the airport is to find what a city can be, vigorous and brawny.

Among the cities I know (aside from Pittsburgh, of course), London is my favorite, but it's mainly a theme park; New York is indispensable but too big; Boston is wonderful libraries and a framework for Fenway Park. But Chicago, even on the basis of slight acquaintance, feels like a throwback to the great age of cities, invigorating and urban to its core.

To settle into a boutique hotel on the north edge of the Loop, looking out over that canal they call the Chicago River, is like coming home to a mid-20th century dream. In Pittsburgh there are a few blocks in the Cultural District where you get this feeling, the very reason cities were invented. But here it extends outward in every direction. Chicago is the grown-up city that Pittsburgh hopes to grow up to be.

On my first day, I had to go right out to a friend's house for an American Theatre Critics Association executive committee meeting and after trying to find the right train stop and making a couple of mistakes, I knew I'd be late. But when I called ahead to say so, I was told not to worry, I had an extra hour. Call it the Phileas Fogg effect -- I hadn't reset my watch to account for the change in time zones. Extra time! I love Chicago.

So the only objection I had to six days here in June for the annual conference of the ATCA is that we didn't get to see enough of the city. Not that I'm really complaining -- we saw a lot of theater. And I saw more city than most, because I played hooky one afternoon and went out to a game at Wrigley Field, one of the loveliest performance spaces I know, right up there with London's Globe Theatre or Fenway Park. I didn't even mind much that the Cubs beat the Red Sox.

But back to the ATCA conference. Organizer and Chicago critic Jonathan Abarbanel faced a daunting task, giving us a taste of a theater scene as large and varied as Chicago's in just five days, along with the inevitable panels and meetings. Even though limited to theaters in production just then, he had dozens of options among the some 200 professional theaters Chicago boasts of, including five that have won the regional theater Tony Award.

We led off with a reception in the Harris Theater Roof Garden at Millennium Park, with a welcome from Chicago's Commissioner of Cultural Affairs (does Pittsburgh even have such a functionary?). Other conference events included a Perspectives in Criticism address on "The Power of Enthusiasm" by Terry Teachout, theater critic of the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Teachout regularly reviews theater countrywide, very much in the pioneering mode of ATCA's founder, Henry Hewes of the Saturday Review, who did the same in the 1960s.

There also was a very entertaining presentation by English actor/author Simon Callow. Some of us got to see a "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" taping, and we made awards presentations (complete with checks) to two playwrights, Caridad Svich and Darren Canady (more info at

All this, and more, goes under the headings of Good Works and Continuing Education for Theater Critics. Mostly, however, we went to the theater, up to eight shows each, depending on late-night options. Of those I saw, three are still running, with continued negotiations about possibly bringing the Goodman's "Iceman Cometh" to Broadway. This brief survey should give a taste of the vitality and variety of Chicago theater, available whenever you visit.

First up for me was "Immediate Family," a new comedy by Paul Oakley Stovall, directed by Phylicia Rashad, staged at (but not produced by) the Goodman Theatre, in their wonderful courtyard theater. To a family wedding/reunion of a well-to-do black family, presided over by a large portrait of the founding parents, comes the gay brother with his partner -- a very white Swede. It's a capable variation on the "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" mode.

Obviously the big (in every way) event of the conference, and perhaps of Chicago's theater year, was the Goodman Theatre's "The Iceman Cometh," a painstakingly rich version of the bulky (4 1/2 hours, including three intermissions) Eugene O'Neill classic, starring Nathan Lane, Brian Dennehy and Stephen Ouimette, directed by Robert Falls, with fine work right down to even the small parts in a cast of 18. Opinions will naturally differ -- hey, everyone's a critic -- but no one can deny the size of the accomplishment, or the continued truth of O'Neill's sledgehammer attack on the addiction of the pipe dream (willful delusion, whatever you call it) in personal life as well as civic.

Two of the most interesting companies we went to, the Timeline Theatre and Lookingglass (one of the Tony winners), both staged shows of especially Chicago interest, both still running.

At Timeline, we saw John Conroy's "My Kind of Town," a docudrama-like account of a more than 40-year practice of torture by the Chicago police. Mr. Conroy is the journalist who did more than any others to bring the gruesome practice to light, but his play, doubtless also due to the work of Timeline and director Nick Bowling, is remarkably free of documentary stiffness. It runs through July 29.

The offering at Lookingglass is Andrew White's "Eastland: A New Musical" -- based on the true story of the Lake Michigan tour boat of that name that rolled over in a 1915 storm, killing 844 passengers and crew. The music by Andrew Pluess and Ben Sussman, a melange of mainly folk modes, is especially affecting, as is the acting by a determined cast of 12 playing many parts each and the staging by director Amanda Dehnert. This, too, is far more than a treatise -- it's a fictionalized reconstruction of the experience of one of those industrial era tragedies (think Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, far better known, that killed "only" 146), which manages considerable theatrical beauty and awe. It has been extended through Aug. 19.

The power of an individual entrepreneur is physically evident in the handsome new Black Ensemble Theatre building, where Jackie Taylor has built not just a building and a theater company but a series of musical biographies that attract strong audience support. The latest is "The Marvin Gaye Story," a warts-and-all portrait of the short and difficult life of the Motown star, interlaced with plenty of his songs, accompanied by a live orchestra. It's a big show and the (mostly black, mostly middle-aged) audience ate it up. More fluid direction would help, but it's clearly a winning recipe. It runs through July 29.

One evening took us to Theater Wit, which boasts three small theaters, all occupied. My choice was Kim Rosenstock's "Tigers Be Still," a Beth Henley-like comedy about a wildly dysfunctional family which some may remember seeing at City Theatre here. The City production was better, but the play held up very well.

On the final day I took a chance on a company called The Hypocrites, now in its 15th year, staging a one-hour version of "Romeo and Juliet" with a company of four actors. What fun! Granted, the play was gutted, with many favorite parts omitted, but the speed with which the four actors changed characters was wonderful, and I even enjoyed the mix of Shakespeare's text with contemporary interjections. The whole was staged in a tent, with an audience of about 40 seated on all four sides in intimate proximity, which gave the sword fights extra immediacy. This is a company to look for if you like your theater up close and inventive.

That's Chicago -- just a small taste of its theatrical riches.


Christopher Rawson:


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