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Those hip Chicago theaters. Spunky and controversial, they're in the spotlight

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Ostensibly a semi-autobiographical work, the play purportedly shows a young Jewish writer confronting his religion and his heritage in the face of the planned 1977 Nazi march through the Chicago suburb of Skokie. The playwright, however, chooses to exploit rather than explore his subject by using clich'ed jokes. Laughs run to the domineering-mother type. The author's cleverness -- and he is clever -- is put to better use in his scenes-within-scenes in which characters from such old movies as ``On the W aterfront'' speak their lines using Yiddish phrases such as ``I coulda been a mensch.''

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The Northlight Theatre has chosen an opposite route, taking an already successful commercial work, Tom Stoppard's ``The Real Thing,'' and giving it a Midwest premi`ere in a not-for-profit setting. (The production has been moved to a local commercial house and will run until mid-December.) The production, directed by Northlight artistic director Michael Maggio, apes no previous version. David Darlow as Henry, the witty, successful playwright who nonetheless ``can't write [about] love,'' gives a wa rm, moving performance that only occasionally seems recitative during the longer speeches. Kristine Thatcher is less effective as Annie, the inarticulate but passionate love of Henry's life. The real star of the show, however, is Stoppard's text. The author's clever articulateness never fails, and the ``cricket bat'' speech is one of the best defenses of the written word ever penned.

Wisdom Bridge Theatre, whose production of ``In the Belly of the Beast'' successfully toured Glasgow, London, and Washington, last spring, fired another political theatrical salvo with the Chicago premi`ere of Ron Hutchinson's taut Irish drama, ``Rat in the Skull.'' The play, set in London amid the continuing strife of Northern Ireland, is essentially a dialogue between a young arrested IRA militant and the Protestant Ulster policeman who interrogates him.

Directed by Steve Robman, the play clanged along on Michael Phillippi's metallic detention cell set, alternating between hissed threats and vehement chair-throwing. Irish actor James Lancaster was effective as Roche, the suspected terrorist, but Mike Genovese (who took over from actor Brian Dennehey during the play's final week) nonetheless marred the production with his portrait of the Ulster detective as hamfisted as Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer.

Politics took on a more whimsical guise in the Goodman Theatre's production of Nikolai Gogol's ``The Government Inspector.'' Under Frank Galati's masterly direction, this 146-year-old play glittered as folk tale and political commentary. Keith Reddin was fine as the civil servant mistakenly identified as the government inspector. I. M. Hobson as the crooked mayor was corpulent tyranny personified. But Michael Merritt's set and Virgil Johnson's costumes nearly stole the show.

New and old work dominated some of the better-known non-Equity Off Loop theaters, including The Next Theatre Company and the Remains Theatre Ensemble. But by far the most impressive work in a non-Equity theater company so far this season was the Stormfield's production of ``Never the Sinner,'' by John Logan, a young Chicago playwright with a penchant for dramatizing real-life events. His version of the Leopold and Loeb story -- a pair of wealthy Chicago heirs turned murderers -- was masterfully direct ed by Terry McCabe, Stormfield's artistic director, who has a reputation for staging provocative new work on a shoestring. Here he culled riveting performances from actors Denis O'Hare and Bryan Stillman. This is a theater worth watching.