THE International Theatre Festival of Chicago, now in its fourth week, happily has included several local theater companies. ``Happily'' because their excellence underscores both the importance of the festival and this city's reputation as a center of theatrical art. Chicago, after all, is the home of Steppenwolf, The Remains, and the Goodman Theatre - all forces to be reckoned with. The Court Theatre provided the festival with several fine performances and a unique opportunity: to see John Gay's 18th-century musical-theater piece ``The Beggar's Opera'' in repertory with Alan Ayckbourn's contemporary ``A Chorus of Disapproval'' - which revolves around an amateur production of ``The Beggar's Opera.''
The Court's interesting bit of programming proved inspired when West Germany's Theatre an der Ruhr then opened at the Blackstone Theater with Bertolt Brecht's and Kurt Weill's ``Threepenny Opera,'' which is also based on ``Beggar's Opera.''
It was exhilarating to see these three plays within a few days of each other - plays connected by story and issues but widely different in style, appeal, and sociopolitical outlook, each driven by an idiosyncratic moral vision.
Chicago's festival provides the perfect cultural climate for art-as-event. Seen in rapid succession, the three plays can be taken as a unified event - greater than the sum of its parts.
Gay's ``The Beggar's Opera'' (1728) is a satire both of the corrupt government of Robert Walpole and of Italian Opera introduced into English society by Handel. Gay fashioned his characters after some of the most notorious criminals of his time and then compared the immoral antics of the gentry with the criminal element; Walpole's political tactics included bribery, nepotism, selective taxation, the vending of government favors, and the buying of Parliamentary votes.
``Opera'' remains a lively, deliciously witty piece that describes a criminal underworld in which betrayals are constant, heroic gestures accompany dark deeds, and hypocrisy masks terrible motives. Two women fight for the love of a rogue highwayman, Macheath. The fathers of the girls gleefully conspire to have Macheath arrested (for the reward). He is tried, sentenced to hang, and then reprieved at the last moment - an absurd conclusion meant to parody the absurdities of 18th-century opera plot twists.
Director Richard Russell Ramos's production celebrated the charm of the miscreants and the joy of life. Sometimes exuberance sank into self-consciousness, though, because not all of the cast achieved the disciplined irony the play demands. But Stephen F. Hall's Macheath gleamed with rascal vitality and wit. William McKereghan as Lockit concocted a splendid cold-hearted opportunist out of Lockit, the jailor and father of one of Macheath's women, balanced by Robert Ousley's blustering Peachum, the second father.
A cooler production might have made the political satire more pointed, but the rambunctious mirth of Ramos's period piece made uncommon sense in repertory with Ayckbourn's social satire, ``A Chorus of Disapproval.'' Several performers from ``Beggar's'' also play in Ramos's ``Chorus.'' Some of Ayckbourn's themes parallel ``The Beggar's Opera,'' and, seen on alternate nights, the plays do speak to each other down through time. Both attack moral lethargy. But Ayckbourn's vision is warmer, more humane, and less self-satisfied in its ironies than Gay's.
In ``Chorus,'' a timid young widower named Guy Jones tries out for a walk-on in a community production of ``The Beggar's Opera.'' Through no effort of his own, he eventually ends up with the lead - and the hatred of all the cast members, each of whom has tried to manipulate him. A true innocent at first, he never finishes a sentence. But by the end of the play, because he has been passively led into all kinds of dubious relationships, he ends up outcast. His good intentions turn to dust not because of any aggressive evil on his part, but simply because he has failed to do well. Mr. Ramos's direction here is crisp and energetic, with superb performances by Tom Amandes as Guy and Nicholas Rudall as ``Beggar'' director Daffyd.
The play deals with the lack of an ethical center in the characters' lives. Marital infidelity is keyed to unethical business practices. Lies lead to complicated misunderstandings; deceit and bribery hang out together. The two women who fight over Guy don't really want him so much as they want something from him. There are no models of decent behavior anywhere in the piece, and yet Ayckbourn's hilarious morality play scourges the vagaries of contemporary personal and political immorality without ever seeming to teach a lesson.
Meanwhile, Gay's ``Beggar's Opera'' in rehearsal forms the transitions between scenes, linking the two plays and their similar tweaking attitudes.
Brecht modernized the ``Opera'' setting. His ``Threepenny Opera'' cuts deeper and more caustically into the pompous decadence of Berlin in the 1920s. Kurt Weill's cacophonous, jazzy score still seems avant-garde.
Director Robert Ciulli of Theater an der Ruhr has made some fanciful changes in the script that underscore the absurdity of the characters' plight. His vaudevillian staging, clowns, and white, modified clown makeup for the entire cast are strangely disturbing.
The Theater an der Ruhr production is as icy as they come, highly stylized, cerebral, and disquieting. In fact, the production's freezing intelligence does not leap the culture gap between Europe and America easily. It takes some determination on the part of the viewer to stick with the director's conception. But Ciulli has, in fact, breathed new life into dated material.
The International Theatre Festival of Chicago continues through July 1. For information, call 1-800-545-FEST.