Mary Michell and Gary Alexander Credit: Courtesy Misalliance Repertory

A pandemic hasn’t stopped Chicago theater artists from starting new companies and producing shows. Last year, Perceptions Theatre on the south side began producing digital work by BIPOC writers as well as offering online readings and training programs. Possibilities Theatre produced their inaugural offering (Noah Haidle’s Smokefall) outside in summer of 2020, moved to online shows for winter, and just closed their outdoor production of Rent.

One new company arose from the ashes of another gone-but-missed troupe just in time to hit the pandemic shutdown, and they’ve just released their first digital production. Misalliance Repertory Theatre, created by veterans of the late ShawChicago, which ceased production in spring of 2019, has created a cunning (and free!) radio-play version of George Bernard Shaw’s short 1913 comedy, The Music Cure. And they have plans for more aural dramas as well as live performances in the works.

For 25 years, ShawChicago provided lively staged readings of plays by Shaw and his contemporaries that focused on the language in the works. Performing in front of music stands, the actors made the dialogue sing and snap in their best productions like a well-tuned chamber orchestra. So it’s perhaps fitting that Misalliance Rep (their name comes from Shaw’s 1910 play Misalliance, subtitled A Debate in One Sitting) would choose The Music Cure as their inaugural calling card.

In Shaw’s own subtitle, the play is A Piece of Utter Nonsense. But in director Gary Alexander’s radio version, it’s also a sheer delight for three actors, set off with the nimble piano work of Tom Bachtell (you may know him best from his caricatures for the New Yorker). Lord Reginald Fitzambey, undersecretary of state for war, has been caught up in an insider trading scandal involving his purchase of shares in the Macaroni Trust, based on his knowledge that the British military is being placed on vegetarian rations. (Thus did the vegetarian Shaw get in both a plug for his preferred diet and a clever play on the Marconi scandal of 1912, in which highly placed members of the British government were alleged to have profited from insider knowledge about an imminent contract with the British Marconi company.)

Lord Reginald’s therapist prescribes rest and opium for his high-strung patient. But when famous pianist Strega Thundridge begins playing in the room next door (she’s been hired by the undersecretary’s mother to soothe his nerves), it sets up an encounter that ends up feeling like a Shavian gender-bent take on the film Secretary, with Reggie begging the fearsome Strega to dominate him. It’s also a battle of sorts between the classical piano repertoire beloved of Strega (particularly Chopin), and the popular ragtime numbers (“Oh, You Beautiful Doll”) that Reggie favors. (The three-member cast features Matt Gall as Reggie, Doug MacKechnie as the doctor, and Kate Young as the fearsome keyboard dominatrix.)

Alexander, who worked with ShawChicago on many productions under the late artistic director Robert Scogin, had always wanted to do the show with his old company. “I had asked Bob about it over the years and he—and I agree—said, ‘The music cues are so difficult and have to be so precise.’ And boy was he right.” Alexander adds, “Obviously doing them on the radio, as a radio play, made it a little bit easier. Because obviously you don’t have to have a stage manager getting ready to play a cue.” Indeed, the Misalliance production, aided by George Zahora’s sound editing and effects and Lauren Thompson’s sound engineering, feels crisp and stiletto-sharp, which is precisely what Shaw requires.

Scogin died in 2018, and his death was one of the factors leading to the dissolution of ShawChicago. But the regulars in the company knew they wanted to keep working together. Alexander briefly served as artistic director, but when he found his plate full with other obligations, Mary Michell took over the job.

The mission of ShawChicago focused on work by Shaw as well as his contemporaries. Alexander notes with a laugh, “He lived forever, so that includes a lot of people, Oscar Wilde to Arthur Miller.” (Shaw died at age 94 in 1950.) But that palette will be expanded with Misalliance. Says Michell, “We want to continue that tradition, but we’d like to expand it to use Shaw as our anchor playwright and expand it to other language-rich playwrights who address social issues. And the reason for that is that when somebody is really proficient with language, their points get across so clearly and it’s just a wonderful thing to be able to look at social issues in a new way and also celebrate the way the writer has presented them to you.”

Alexander says, “Misalliance is really committed to playwrights that use language in a Shawlike way and sort of present information. That certainly opens up to more playwrights of color, and women and all sorts of things. We’ll probably do Shaw for a little while, but I think it will be very interesting to pair Shaw or shorter Shaw works with other playwrights.”

While it’s undeniable that Shaw fits squarely into the “dead white European male” canon of playwrights, the company has had ongoing internal conversations, according to both Michell and Alexander, about how to do his work with sensitivity to the current times. 

Michell observes, “In Shaw’s defense, I really do want to say it’s true, Shaw is a dead white guy. It’s true that he is European. And it’s also true that he really came from almost abject poverty and a very unstable family life. So he was really kind of an outsider from the beginning. So yeah, he’s a white guy, but he used his position as a white guy to really speak truth to power all the time. He was a real rebel and was consistently getting under people’s skin and taking positions that made people very uncomfortable. And I think that took a whole lot of courage.”

And in keeping with the economic justice messages embodied in so many of Shaw’s plays, Misalliance Rep is also committed to paying their artists fairly. One of the hurdles they had to clear with the recording of The Music Cure was figuring out which actors’ union contract to use for a virtual production—SAG-AFTRA or Actors’ Equity? (They ended up using the former.) As they raise funds toward their hoped-for live season to begin in spring of 2022, paying fair wages to everyone is a priority.

But The Music Cure won’t be their last foray into radio drama. The company will present a radio version of James M. Barrie’s 1915 one-act, The New Word (about a young soldier on the eve of his departure to World War I), in October.

A terrible loss

On Friday, August 20, Malik Alim, a community organizer and activist whose work with Chicago Community Bond Fund helped lead to the elimination of cash bail in Illinois, drowned in an accident in Fox Lake. The 28-year-old Alim was riding on an inner tube with his two children that was being pulled by a boat when a wave took him under. His partner, playwright, poet, and educator Kristiana Rae Colón, was in the boat and was able to save their children. Alim’s body was recovered on Sunday. 

In addition to his work with the Bond Fund, Alim also worked with Chicago Votes and the #LetUsBreathe collective, dedicated to Black liberation and cofounded by Colón, whose work frequently confronts issues of systemic racism, the carceral state, and restorative justice.

After news of the tragedy hit, tributes to Alim poured in, including from TRiiBE editor-in-chief Tiffany Walden, who wrote, “Activists are some of the strongest pillars of our community in Chicago. Images of them in mainstream media, more often than not, highlight their fearlessness as aggression when they’re toe-to-toe with police during a protest. What’s left unseen is the divinity in their courageousness, them being called by a higher power to throw their bodies on the line in hopes of saving Black futures.”

And Bill Ayers, who cohosted the Under the Tree podcast with Alim (which is suspended for now) wrote on his website that Alim was “an inspirational organizer and activist, a spark of energy and hope.” 

A GoFundMe has been established to “support his celebration of life and ongoing legacy.”