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

By now they know they're hot. Ever since a handful of Chicago's resident theaters began blitzkrieging New York and Washington with their unorthodox productions, including Sam Shepard's ``True West'' and David Mamet's 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning ``Glengarry Glen Ross,'' and ever since the news media began calling this the hottest theater town in the country, these nonprofit theaters have begun to believe it.

Collectively, they've begun to listen to all the attention being paid to their youthful energy and their hip theatrical style, which frequently fuses controversial topics with rock-and-roll music and a no-holds-barred ensemble acting technique that, in the case of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, has been called the finest acting company in the country. Now with their 1985-86 season under way, these dozens of Off Loop theaters are beginning to act on their success.

Already two Chicago productions -- Steppenwolf's revival of ``The Caretaker'' and Victory Gardens' ``The God of Isaac'' -- are slated for Off Broadway runs. Two productions have moved into local commercial houses for extended runs -- a move that many observers are calling the next trend in Chicago theater. Meanwhile, several theaters are busy producing new local playwrights, while other companies are improving their professional standing by striding from nonunion to Equity status.

Despite some inevitable personnel shifts, impressive work continues to be done at the Steppenwolf, the Goodman Theatre, and Wisdom Bridge Theatre. And in the best of the scrappy Chicago tradition, some of the most exciting theater can be found in the tiny storefront companies such as the Stormfield Theatre. Collectively, it is a season of transition and continued growth.

Buoyed by a string of New York successes, a 1985 Tony Award, and six local Jefferson Awards, Steppenwolf has swung into its 10th season with another newsmaking production. Its revival of Harold Pinter's ``The Caretaker'' resurrects the same cast and director as in its 1979 production, but to different effect.

Directed by ensemble member John Malkovich, Pinter's enigmatic tale of two strange brothers (Mick and Aston) whose symbiotic relationship is strained by the intrusion of a grasping, vinegary tramp (Davies), hurtles along on new rhythms. The typical Pinter pauses have been largely rushed, creating a production that is heavy on psychological realism and lighter on ideological interpretation.

While one might quarrel with the possible excesses in Alan Wilder's performance of the whining Davies and Jeff Perry's portrait of Aston as obviously deranged, collectively the acting is riveting. Gary Sinise, who this year is serving as Steppenwolf's artistic director, portrays Mick with all the potential explosiveness of a loaded gun. By far the most brilliant moment in the production, however, belongs to Perry, who closes out the first act with the classic monologue in which Aston recalls the h orrors of the mental hospital. This company's reputation is well deserved.

At the opposite end of the stylistic scale is ``The God of Isaac,'' a new comedy by James Sherman, a native Chicagoan and young playwright-actor. Originally produced at the Victory Gardens Theater last summer and directed by artistic director Dennis Zacek, ``The God of Isaac'' has already acquired the patina of an outright commercial venture; the play moves to New York this winter.

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.''

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.

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