Dubious Debut

Director Peter Sellars’s nearly four-hour-long The Merchant of Venice at the Goodman Theatre may not be great theater, but it has certainly left its mark. On opening night, an evening when audience members–most attending for free–are usually the most respectful of what’s onstage, about a third of the crowd left early. Two of the first people to boldly head for the exit were Goodman’s honorary board chairman Stanley Freehling and his wife, Joan, who made their way from the center of a row during the first act. Afterward Freehling, one of the city’s preeminent arts patrons, remained optimistic that the Goodman would survive. “If they can make it through Lone Canoe, they can make it through anything,” he said, in reference to the David Mamet play staged in 1978 and considered one of the biggest artistic bombs detonated by Gregory Mosher, Robert Falls’s predecessor as Goodman artistic director. After the obviously negative response of many first-nighters, Goodman brass no doubt breathed a sigh of relief the next morning at the Tribune’s positive review. Richard Christiansen typically had it both ways, however, calling the production “fascinating” while also noting that it was frequently “nearly impossible to hear the language, an unforgivable aspect.”

Last Thursday evening Sellars’s controversial production was assured national attention when New York Times chief drama critic David Richards showed up, escorted by Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre producer Kary Walker. The two are old friends from their D.C. days, when Richards was the Washington Post’s drama critic and Walker ran a dinner theater. For Walker, who likes the musicals he produces at Marriott’s Lincolnshire to run no longer than two hours and 20 minutes including an intermission, Sellars’s Merchant of Venice must have seemed endless. In his review Richards said, “Mr. Sellars puts such an idiosyncratic spin on scenes that he might as well be rewriting the script,” and concluded by entreating Sellars to think less and feel more if he wishes to work in the theater. When the show began last Thursday, there appeared to be more than 600 people in the 683-seat Goodman house. After the intermission, which comes after two hours and ten minutes, the crowd had dwindled to around 150.

Reaction to the show didn’t silence or sidetrack Sellars, who stayed in Chicago to polish the production for its scheduled European tour. Last Friday he participated in a panel at Steppenwolf Theatre along with painter Ed Paschke and author Ann Beattie. Sources at the event, which was organized for 12 arts journalists who are the first round of fellows in the Medill School of Journalism’s new national arts journalism program, say Sellars dominated the discussion with a diatribe against theater critics who render a verdict and then act as if it’s the final word on a production. Sellars argued that a critic’s job is to engage people in a discussion of the theater rather than slam the door shut on a production.

Trib arts writer Sid Smith obliged Sellars with a thumb-sucker in last Sunday’s Arts section that served largely as an apologia for the director and his Merchant of Venice. “The great challenge of art is risk and pain,” wrote Smith, neatly sidestepping the issue of whether art should connect with an audience. Though The Merchant of Venice may be repelling Goodman audiences, at least one of the company’s board members maintains the production’s glory days are still ahead. Last week Goodman trustee and art dealer Richard Gray predicted that Sellars’s show will attract sellout crowds in Europe.

Chicago Theatre Gets New Management

The twisted saga of the restored Chicago Theatre took another uncertain turn last week with the creation of the Civic Preservation Foundation, a new board of directors that will oversee operations at the bankrupt State Street venue. The five named to the new board are the city’s culture commissar Lois Weisberg, WLS TV president and general manager Joe Ahern, Marshall Field’s president Daniel Skoda, Stouffer-Riviere Hotel general manager John Bruns, and art dealer Isobel Neal. They will serve without pay and will assume the management responsibilities previously handled by attorney Marshall Holleb, consultant Margery al-Chalabi, and the investment firm of Rodman & Renshaw Inc.–all general partners in Chicago Theatre Restoration Associates (CTRA), an investor consortium that bought and restored the former movie theater and adjoining Page Brothers office building with the help of a multimillion-dollar city loan. That loan has yet to be repaid, but the former CTRA general partners will remain in the consortium as limited partners and co-owners of the property.

According to Richard W. Burke, an attorney representing the city, city officials had pressed for the appointment of a new management oversight board that might be more effective than CTRA in turning around the theater’s financial situation. Like CTRA’s general partners, the new Civic Preservation Foundation board lacks firsthand experience in theater management. “That concerns us,” says Holleb, who maintains that he and his partners made “no mistakes” operating the Chicago Theatre even though millions of dollars in real estate taxes and mortgage have not been paid since the theater reopened. Under the terms of the new arrangement, the Chicago Theatre will have until the year 2003 to pay back its debt to the city of more than $17.2 million. If the money isn’t repaid by then, the city can legally take possession of the property.

As of late last week, the Civic Preservation Foundation board had not met, but one of its first duties will be deciding who manages and books the Chicago Theatre on a day-to-day basis. A contender for the job could be Jam Productions. But whoever runs the theater confronts the daunting task of trying to make it profitable without a long-running booking to replace Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which closes December 31. Last week only three firm musical bookings were scheduled at the Chicago for all of 1995: five weeks of Kiss of the Spider Woman, two weeks of a Fiddler on the Roof revival, and one week of Jelly’s Last Jam. Another potentially long-running hit, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, could reach the city in 1995, but a source says it’s likely to wind up at the Auditorium.

The Civic Preservation Foundation could choose to solve its problems by selling the place. A source close to the Chicago Theatre operation says that before the group’s formation preliminary discussions about a possible sale had already occurred between CTRA and Live Entertainment Corporation of Canada, the Toronto-based theatrical production company presenting Joseph. The source indicated that the discussions were curtailed by Live Entertainment’s concern about legal wrangling between CTRA and the city. Live Entertainment already owns and operates the Pantages Theatre in Toronto.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bob Marshak.