Chicago Companies Take Risks

Five institutions add to the Windy City's cutting-edge reputation

Theatergoers in Chicago have had three choices this fall: playing it safe (Donny Osmond in ``Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,'' ``Laughter on the 23rd Floor''); going for broke (a highly acclaimed second-company production of ``Angels in America''); or taking a chance on one of the nonprofit companies that is building its reputation.

Calling the Goodman a nonprofit theater is a bit of an inside joke. It is not only the most lavishly endowed theater in this jungle-gym skyline city but one of the richest in America.

High-visibility projects are mounted in the spacious auditorium, while experimental works are ensconced in the smaller, newer studio space. But such divisions evaporate if, for instance, enfant terrible Peter Sellars wants to experiment with ``The Merchant of Venice'' on the main stage.

All over town, theater buffs boasted of how long they'd endured the director's four-hour ``Merchant.'' It's true, a third of the audience left during the intermission. But those who stayed admitted that Sellars had achieved something amazing: casting a black actor as Shylock (the very fine Paul Butler) caused us to empathize with Shylock's feelings of persecution as we never have before.

The production has moved on to a European tour, where Sellars's fabulous imagination is bound to be more appreciated.

The Goodman is about to unveil a return of its lavish and multiracial ``A Christmas Carol,'' followed in January by the world-premiere production of August Wilson's ``Seven Guitars,'' directed by Lloyd Richards.

The Goodman Studio Series, as it's called, also started the season with a bang, with the appealing Wendy MacLeod comedy, ``Sin.'' It's a modern allegory about a female helicopter reporter who comes down to earth in more ways than one during a San Francisco earthquake. She encounters personifications of the seven deadly sins, all but one male. Originally scheduled to close this past weekend, it's being held over until Nov. 27.

The local reviewers were ecstatic, perhaps too much so. MacLeod is a genuine original with a fresh, impudent sense of humor and a gift for characterization. But one must ask, was it really necessary to have the crazies that populate her life before and after the earthquake labeled ``pride,'' ``envy,'' ``greed,'' etc?

Furthermore, MacLeod's heroine, Avery Bly, earns too little sympathy - especially as played by Amy Morton, a popular actress who suggests a young Gena Rowlands. This lady takes herself far too seriously and comes off as downright smug next to virtually every other character in the play.

Even so, director David Petrarca should be congratulated for assembling such a hilarious supporting cast and helping MacLeod bring the play this far.

Coming up in January at the Studio stage: Gertrude Stein's ``Each One as She May,'' adapted and directed by Frank Galati.

THE Goodman's chief rival, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, also boasts two stages, though the smaller one has been dark this fall and has not yet announced its first tenant. (Could it be because the fall show in the big theater, Anthony Burgess's ``A Clockwork Orange,'' took half the year's budget? No expense was spared for the visually striking and highly theatrical adaptation.)

With a 40-foot-high set, classical musicians perched halfway up the back wall, and a huge cast fearlessly participating in nudity and violence, there was every reason to sell tickets. And they did; even midweek matinees were sold out. Watching ``A Clockwork Orange,'' however, one felt lost in a Surrealist nightmare somewhere between Fellini and Fassbinder.

Coming up next at Steppenwolf: the modestly budgeted, two-character ``Playland'' - the affecting Athol Fugard play that is likely to receive as warm a reception as it did last year in Manhattan.

SHAKESPEARE Repertory enhanced its already-growing reputation by sweeping last year's Jefferson Awards (Chicago's equivalent of the Tonys) for Artistic Director Barbara Gaines's production of ``King Lear.'' All three plays this year will be directed by Gaines, and judging by the company's current production ``A Winter's Tale'' (through Dec. 6), one can understand why.

It was not easy to sit through ``A Winter's Tale'' so soon after seeing the luminous Royal Shakespeare Company presentation, directed by Adrian Noble, which recently paid a visit to New York.

But with one-tenth or so the budget of the RSC, Gaines seizes the play by the throat and never lets go. The majority of her well-chosen cast brings a deep understanding of the words to this show.

For those who missed the more extravagant production, this is a fine introduction to the play, with especially good work by Sam Tsoutouvas as Leontes.

THE National Jewish Theatre in Skokie, Ill., attracts audiences from all over the Chicago area, and why shouldn't it? How many theaters could mount as moving a revival of an obscure Clifford Odets play as the recent ``Rocket to the Moon''?

The superb cast was directed with exceptional insight and feeling by co-artistic director Jeff Ginsberg. The story tells of an inarticulate dentist, kept on a tight leash by a nagging wife, who drifts toward an extramarital liaison.

The National Jewish Theatre opens their next production,``Club Soda'' by Leah Kornfeld Friedman, in mid-December, followed by Arthur Miller's ``Broken Glass'' in January. Worth a detour.

PEGASUS Players has no home of its own, but the company deserves appreciation from Broadway musical-history aficionados for the recently resurrected Duke Ellington-John La Touche collaboration, ``Beggar's Holiday.'' Dale Wasserman spent years putting together discarded pieces of this lost score and, in an act of unfortunate hubris, chose to add his own lyrics to Ellington's.

On the other hand, the new orchestrations by Doug Lofstrom for an eight-piece jazz ensemble were simply sensational. Even with a slightly amateurish cast, the glorious rhythms and melodies soared.

Yes, they take risks in the Windy City. This is the place where artists and audiences go out on a limb - together.

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