Theater companies from around the globe on stage in Chicago. Debut of annual fest includes local troupes, too

Already a very active theater town, the Windy City is exploding this month with the first Chicago International Theatre Festival. In settings ranging from the lovely old Blackstone Theatre to the refurbished bowling alley that's home to Chicago's Body Politic Theatre, audiences will see productions by such illustrious troupes as the Ian McKellen/Edward Petherbridge Company of the National Theatre of Great Britain, which brings four varied productions [see review at right]. The other companies that come in for shorter stints include the Haifa Municipal Theatre of Israel, Japan's Suzuki Company of Toga, a comic trio from Spain known as El Tricicle, the multiracial Market Theatre Company from South Africa, and Carlo and Alberto Colombaioni from Italy, who offer commedia dell'arte. Since the productions are presented simultaneously, a three-day visit will enable out-of-towners to sample three or four companies.

The festival might be more aptly named the International and Chicago Theatre Festival, since only six of the performance groups come from outside the United States; 11 are regional nonprofit theaters.

The Chicago troupes include Body Politic Theatre, Chicago Theatre Company, Court Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Immediate Theatre Company, Northlight Theatre, Organic Theater Company, Remains Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Victory Gardens Theater, and Wisdom Bridge Theatre.

The offerings from the Chicago companies range from a series of plays based on Eudora Welty stories, to one dealing with the moral dilemmas a black policeman faces after shooting a belligerent white suspect, to the story of a young Russian Jew whose friendships help him adjust to turn-of-the-century Texas. Beckett, Brecht, and Chekhov are also represented.

Plans for the $2.4 million festival, which drew such corporate sponsors as American Express, Kraft, and Sara Lee, were greeted at first by the Chicago-area theaters with enthusiasm, but later came under fire from local resident theaters.

``There has been some concern . . . about how this will affect ticket sales and funding,'' says Steve Eich, managing director of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. ``The jury is still out on that. We're hoping that it will stimulate additional audiences for theater that will remain after the festival is over.''

``Some were disgruntled in the community initially,'' says festival producer Jane Sahlins. ``They were concerned that the festival was going to take up all the funding from our funding community. We've been assured by our donors that this isn't so, that the money doesn't come out of same pot.''

Others insist there's only one pot, and it's small. At any rate, the festival goes on. Community reaction to the productions has proven warm.

The opening night of the Haifa company's ``Ghetto'' [reviewed on Page 29] brought multiple curtain calls. And after a matinee performance of El Tricicle [Page 31], members of the audience kissed the performers on both cheeks as they filed out. One actor tried to persuade the troupe to perform improvisationally at Second City theater after a Saturday night show.

The result is a cultural exchange in which actors are able to attend workshops and view one another's shows at discounted prices, and the public is able to take in a whole raft of lectures and round-table discussions with actors and actresses, critics, directors, and designers.

Putting together an event of this magnitude involves a lot of travel to see groups that don't appear frequently in the US. Ms. Sahlins says that the arts festival at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics helped. ``We were able to save on air fare by going to L. A. to see the Italian and Japanese companies,'' she says.

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