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Chicago theater: second to none

By Hilary DeVriesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 6, 1985


WHEN local playwright David Mamet wrote those lines, first performed on stage in 1977 in a tiny Chicago theater called the St. Nicholas, he could not have known how prophetic they would be. Although the St. Nicholas no longer stands and Mr. Mamet's success has squired away this favorite son to Hollywood and New York, Chicago's resident theaters have risen to unprecedented national prominence. After years of serving as a stop for third-rate touring companies and laboring under The New Yorker's infamous nomenclature of ``The Second City,'' Chicago and its theaters are now second to none. ``Chicago is the hottest theater town in America right now,'' Peter Sellars, artistic director of the American National Theater, said last summer.

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Indeed, what began in the late 1950s with a small group of local acting students devoted to improvisation has today blossomed into a citywide, grass-roots theater movement with nationwide impact. The signs are abundant:

In the past six years, the number of resident Chicago theaters has increased fivefold, from 22 in 1979 to more than 110 in 1985. Chicago theater audiences now outnumber those in every city in the country except New York.

In 1984, Chicago's oldest resident theater, the Goodman Theatre, produced the two most important plays of the year -- Mamet's ``Glengarry Glen Ross'' and David Rabe's star-studded Broadway hit, ``Hurlyburly.''

The 10-year-old Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which blitzkrieged the Off Broadway theater scene in New York with four critically acclaimed productions in three years, won this year's Tony Award for regional theater excellence and is widely regarded as the finest acting company in the country. Several members -- Gary Sinise, Joan Allen, and Academy Award nominee John Malkovich -- are now in hot demand.

The Wisdom Bridge Theatre, another respected Off Loop theater, this year sent its production of ``In the Belly of the Beast'' on a critically acclaimed tour to London and Glasgow. The production was also seen in Washington.

Mr. Sellars, in conjunction with AT&T, brought four Chicago productions to national attention last summer with special performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

``Chicago has always been a tough town, in which theater was never taken seriously as industry until the past five years,'' says Robert Falls, outgoing director of the Wisdom Bridge and newly appointed artistic director of the Goodman. ``Now it's recognized as an industry we can all harness.'' INDEED, Chicago's preeminence on the boards is not only boosting the nation's nonprofit theater movement but is also stimulating its commercial counterpart. Already, two new Chicago shows, Steppenwolf's revival of Harold Pinter's ``Caretaker'' and the Victory Gardens Theater's ``God of Isaac,'' are slated for New York openings.

In seeking an explanation for such singular success, critics point to a unique production style -- an invigorating blend of youthful energy and hip theatricality, which marries rock-and-roll rhythms with controversial topics and a no-holds-barred acting technique. Wisdom Bridge's recent high-tech production of ``Hamlet,'' and many Steppenwolf productions, including the current Off Broadway hit ``Orphans,'' encapsulate this approach.

Local observers, however, are less sanguine. ``People in Chicago have seen that work, but they've never labeled it a `Chicago style,' '' says Mr. Sinise, a Steppenwolf actor and artistic director. ``It's just something different than Manhattan was used to seeing.''

``There is a Chicago style, but I don't think it's all that easily definable,'' says Mr. Falls. ``It has to do with a sort of immediacy and unpretentiousness. In New York you see people who are scared for their careers most of the time . . . . In Chicago, it's just fun. Chicago theater doesn't take itself all that seriously.''