Chicago: First-rate theater in the second city

Chicago, as we all well know, is a great theater town - "Second City" only to New York.

As varied as its theater scene is, there is something distinctive about it, too. Directors working here call Chicago's decisive acting style variously "muscular," "aggressive," "no-nonsense," and "substantial."

"We blow jazz," says B.J. Jones, artistic director of the Northlight Theatre in Skokie, Ill., a northern suburb of Chicago. Theater here, he says, is largely actor-driven, and ensemble work is king. "We listen to each other and blow jazz."

And, as in jazz, there is a wide diversity among the artists and theatrical styles.

Ethnic humor, eccentric individuals, and political savvy spice up the night life: In one week, a viewer could pick up a brusque, incisive production of "Richard II" at Chicago Shakespeare; or go up four floors in the same building to see a martial-artsy Sondheim musical called "Pacific Overtures" (performed by men who loosely adapt Kabuki ideas to assume the women's roles); or bounce across town to the Goodman Theatre to see a rousing, no-holds-barred, athletic production of Charles Mee's inky comedy "Big Love"; or cruise to the Victory Gardens for Lydia Stryk's striking play "The Glamour House."

These shows don't have much in common (one could even argue that, however feminist, "The Glamour House" is, well, feminine). Still, each in its own way is sharp as scissors. And they all concern themselves with significant issues. The fluffy fun seems to be left to touring Broadway shows, such as "Beauty and the Beast" and "Kiss Me, Kate."

Then there's the fabulous array of talent. "New York and Los Angeles are meat markets where [actors] show [their] wares," says Northlight artistic director Jones. The actor's dilemma is choosing between the desire for fame and the voracious need to ply the craft. "The stakes are so high in New York. Here, the stakes are about working."

"There's an energy and drive here," says Barbara Gaines, artistic director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. "You can get a lot of jobs if you are good. Actors come here to practice the craft, and they can work here all the time." Consequently, the talent pool is rich and varied.

Many excellent Chicago actors have gone on to New York theater or made their fortunes in movies, of course: Lili Taylor, Joe Mantegna, Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, and William H. Macy, to name a few. "There's an appetite, an energy, a muscle to it," says Jones of these actors' approach to the craft.

Energy and muscle is even evident in a light family comedy like Over the Tavern at the Northlight. Chicago actors dip below the comic shell to reveal more serious issues of anger and insecurity. Northlight, which joined forces with the National Jewish Theater, is meant to please the middle-class suburban patron who empathizes with the struggles of working people from ethnic communities.

"Tavern" concerns a Polish family whose three children attend Roman Catholic school and live in dread of a ruler-wielding nun, who doesn't believe in choice when it comes to religion. Young Rudy (played by the precocious Bobby Anderson) is not convinced he wants to receive his first communion. "I've read that there are 1,300 religions in the world. I want to shop around," he says. The semiautobiographical play by Tom Dudzick has been a hit in regional theaters around the country and a favorite holiday show. It's a cross between Neil Simon and Woody Allen (see more reviews of plays below).

Chicago theatergoers support their local theatrical visionaries. Chicago's David Mamet remains one of the greatest living playwrights, and the actors who peopled his plays (like Joe Mantegna) made the 1970s and '80s an important time for Chicago theater.

Despite the current recession, the drop in tourism since Sept. 11, and the likely closing of a few small theater companies, the big three - the Goodman, Steppenwolf, and Chicago Shakespeare - are doing well, with large subscription audiences and close ties to the community, such as education programs for children.

All three theaters have new state-of-the-art facilities. Two of them (Goodman, Steppenwolf) have won Tony awards. A third, The Victory Gardens, won the Tony this year, making Chicago the only city to have acquired three regional Tony awards.

The Victory Gardens is an unusual theater that showcases living playwrights.

"We have an ongoing commitment to the playwright," says Dennis Zacek, the artistic director, "and as a result, we develop new plays."

In Chicago, she says, "Actors do what they can to take ownership of the role. And we have all been influenced by Second City [a sketch-comedy theater]. The emphasis in Chicago is on ensemble work. 'Vigorous' describes the quality, and the work, and the state of theater in Chicago."

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