In Chicago, a bloom of rich theater

An evening at "Lost Land," the current offering by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, is, in more ways than one, a journey to the past.

It's the story of an idealistic Hungarian aristocrat who watches his country, and his vineyard, fall to ruins around him at the end of World War I.

It's also the first time John Malkovich, a founding member of Steppenwolf, has been on a stage since 1996, when he performed the title role in "The Libertine" - a play with the same playwright and director team as "Lost Land."

For a company, and a town, with such famously strong theater loyalties, it's somehow fitting that the three are working together again nine years later. But it's perhaps more fitting that even as Chicago welcomes back one of its most beloved actors, theater here is moving forward in surprising and risk-taking directions.

Steppenwolf itself is planning to celebrate its 30th season, starting this fall, with a slate of entirely new plays. Meanwhile, young storefront ensembles are earning the kind of accolades that drew attention to Steppenwolf when it first started in a suburban church basement in the 1970s.

Chicago has always been a city with an exceptionally vibrant theater scene - arguably as exciting, if not as commercially successful, as New York's. Malkovich's return is a reminder of the many talented actors and writers - Gary Sinise, David Mamet, John C. Reilly - who got their start here.

But it's also been a city of ensembles, rather than stars - a town known for collaboration, rather than cutthroat competition (among theater companies, at least). And its audiences are still unusually quick to embrace edgy, untested fare.

"Chicago holds a unique place," says Richard Christiansen, former chief theater critic for the Chicago Tribune. "New York is still the prime showcase, the end-of-the-rainbow place, the place with the highest risks and the highest rewards. In Chicago, because it's so much cheaper to produce here, and because the risks are not as great, it's able to sustain a lot more theater than New York can. It's a case where people can generally work."

The city is a place for new and emerging talents, says Tim Evans, a manager who's worked with Steppenwolf on and off since 1977. "Over the course of the last 30 to 40 years we have educated generations of young audiences to have theatergoing as part of their artistic existence in the city."

Chicago theater first made a distinctive name for itself in the 1960s and '70s with Second City, the improv comedy troupe that launched Bill Murray, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, and many others. Over the next few decades, the city became known for its playwrights and for the strong ensemble acting at production companies such as the Steppenwolf.

Something for everyone

The city shows no signs of complacency; if anything, the offerings today are even more diverse. "[Chicago] became most notorious for that kind of rock 'n' roll theater that Steppenwolf practiced, and that's still part of the tradition," says Mr. Christiansen, whose book, "A Theater of our Own," is a history of the city's stage legacy. "But the variety of theater has broadened from this very naturalistic style to a sophisticated style of every nature - neoclassical, avant garde, all characterized by an unusual energy."

This spring, theatergoers who can't make Steppenwolf's sold-out production (tickets are still available by lottery) have options that include a world première about a war journalist, a musical version of Aristophanes' comedy "The Birds," a new adaptation by the Goodman's visually stylish "Mary Zimmerman," and a revival of "True West," the play that Malkovich made famous at the Steppenwolf in 1982 before its successful Broadway run. Audiences who want big-budget fare can see "Romeo and Juliet" at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, while those who favor intimacy can squeeze into William Inge's "Natural Affection" at the 28-seat Artistic Home. At A Red Orchid Theatre, "4 Murders" by Brett Neveu, a young Chicago playwright, is wowing critics.

"There are no obstacles of the kind you have in other capitals - space limitations or heavy union limitations," says Bernie Sahlins, cofounder of Second City. "It's easier in Chicago to just find two boards and put on a play. And it's a city where if you fail you pick yourself up and do it again, whereas if you're in Los Angeles or New York, you don't get many chances."

The less complicated financial situation is a prime reason so many actors and directors start their careers in one of Chicago's nearly 200 companies.

"Here you can put up a show and run it for six weeks and get press. For the same money you could put up a show for one week in New York and pray someone sees it and writes a review," says Nathan Allen, artistic director of The House Theatre, one of Chicago's newer ensembles.

Room for fresh talent

The House, which Mr. Allen and some friends from Southern Methodist University started in 2001, has become known for producing cutting-edge productions, mostly written by company members. "We moved here because we wanted to be part of the family tree," says Allen, referring to ensemble theaters such as the Steppenwolf and Lookingglass.

One of the first House plays, "The Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan," ran for five months and sold 8,000 tickets. It's an extraordinary achievement for a new company, especially since most of its members are in their 20s.

"It's become kind of a cliché that people say, 'In Chicago it's about the work and the storytelling,' but I think that's true," says P.J. Powers, artistic director of TimeLine Theatre, another young company that operates out of a church and focuses on historical plays that touch on current social and political issues.

Mr. Powers says he appreciates the sense of community among the city's theaters, nearly all of which are nonprofit ensembles. The older companies are happy to act as mentors to the up-and-comers, he says.

A city of ardent theatergoers

Audiences' willingness to venture out to new productions of all types helps such theater to thrive, as does support from critics like Christiansen who, during his 40-year tenure, treated storefront plays as though they were Broadway imports. "From every sector, we have support for an atmosphere of fervent artistic activity," says Martha Lavey, artistic director of the Steppenwolf and costar of "Lost Land."

With no real television or film presence, Chicago is still a town where actors can often find work, but not grow rich. And it lacks the prestige of New York or Los Angeles. That's one reason actors such as Joe Mantegna, Joan Allen, and William H. Macy eventually move on. But they don't shy away from their roots. "It's sort of a badge of courage that you were a Chicago actor," says Mr. Evans.

So perhaps it's not surprising that Malkovich is devoting four months to a Steppenwolf production that Terry Johnson is directing and Stephen Jeffreys wrote with him in mind.

"It's a homecoming in a certain way," says Ms. Lavey, who remembers taking an acting class taught by Malkovich after she graduated from Northwestern. "He's not making 'the grand return,' " she says. "Steppenwolf is very much a part of his artistic life."

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