Monday, June 23, 2008

The Chicago Theater I Know and Love.

Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones has a great piece in today's paper about the likely impact of all the Tony Awards won last Sunday by Chicago theater artists and institutions.

I have enjoyed Chicago theater for more than 20 years. Chicago theater is a phenomenon. New York is no longer America's theatre capital. At best, that role is now shared between New York and Chicago.

Chicago theater is huge. It is the recently revitalized Loop Theater District. It is The Goodman, Steppenwolf, Second City, Victory Gardens, Chicago Shakespeare, and Lookingglass. It is the Neo-Futurists, whose weekend midnight show in a former funeral home in Andersonville is thirty plays in sixty minutes, never the same show twice, and if it's a sell-out there might be pizza.

Last night I saw two one-acts in a 35-seat theater attached to an art gallery in a second floor walk-up loft space between the El and Metra tracks just north of Irving Park Road. It was part of a festival. The first play was a 1916 meditation on culture-bound notions of gender and sex roles dressed up as a murder mystery. The second was part play, part dance piece, based on a proto-feminist short story published in 1899. They were terrific.

These are not neighborhood kids putting on a show, except that neighborhood kids putting on a show is exactly what they are. This is what Chicago theater is really about, walking into a funky storefront space with forty mismatched seats salvaged from an old movie house, and lighting instruments purchased at the hardware store. Then the lights go down and you have an astonishing, incredibly intimate theater experience.

This is how Steppenwolf began. I know because I was there, not at the very beginning in the Evanston church basement, but 20 years ago in the Lakeview storefront, where you could count on madness, violence, and at least a little nudity in every production.

If every living thing grows from its roots, this is where all that is Chicago theater comes from, these lofts and storefront spaces with 50 or 60 seats, a card table ticket office, and a $15 general admission ticket price. Sometimes the plays are brand new, made while you watch, other times they are classics. I have nothing against Wicked or Jersey Boys, but the Chicago theater I know and love is in the hundreds of neighborhood spaces ranging from small to tiny, where people make fresh art every night of the week.

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