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Half Empty or Half Full

Thirteenth Tribe’s latest production, about the disintegrating relationship between a stage magician and his rebellious assistant, is called How to Be Sawed in Half. But since the reviews started rolling in, director Joanna Settle, producer Philip Faversham, and playwright Hurt McDermott have been wondering how to hold it together. “Cold, removed, and terribly impersonal,” wrote Chris Jones in the Tribune. “Painfully self-conscious and tedious,” wrote Hedy Weiss in the Sun-Times. “Flat, dull, pretentious, [and] poorly performed,” wrote Reader contributor Jack Helbig. The play runs through September 23 at the Athenaeum Theatre, but it’s reportedly drawing fewer than 50 people to each performance. Sunday matinees originally scheduled for the run have been canceled.

The avalanche of bad press seems to have caught the talented production team by surprise. “All of my other shows have gotten at least some rave reviews, but I believe Joanna made this play into a full experience and a really beautiful production,” says McDermott, whose Warhawks & Lindberghs won a 1999 Joseph Jefferson award for best new play. Settle earned her graduate degree in directing from the prestigious Juilliard School, completed a residency with the noted experimental company Mabou Mines, and helped found Thirteenth Tribe; she’s assisted director JoAnne Akalaitis on four Chicago projects and recently helmed a touring production of Grease in South America. She had never worked with McDermott, but she fell in love with his script and creates some stunning stage pictures around the magician and his assistant as they perform their tattered act in a run-down and nearly empty theater in Normal, Illinois.

Faversham served as producer on Nightingale in a Music Box, an independent movie thriller written and directed by McDermott, and at McDermott’s request he agreed to make his theater debut by producing How to Be Sawed in Half. Faversham asked the playwright to draw up a list of stage directors for the show, and Settle topped the list. From the beginning she envisioned a setting that would evoke the pathos of a washed-up magic act, and the team decided to book the show at the 900-seat Athenaeum. “We never expected to fill 900 seats a night,” she explains. Fred Solari, manager of the Athenaeum, confirms that booking the outsize venue was part of the design scheme. “I never thought of Thirteenth Tribe as a group that does mass-appeal work,” says Solari. “The way they explained the piece to me, the largely empty theater itself would become a character in the play.” He offered Faversham and Thirteenth Tribe a reduced rental for the five-week run because they were taking the Athenaeum during the dog days of summer.

Unfortunately the tight schedule allowed Settle only four days to load in and tech the show (a process that normally takes her ten days) and forced her to cancel two scheduled previews. “The pace was off when we opened,” she says. Since then the show’s running time has been tightened from 92 to 76 minutes, and Faversham has collected some favorable critiques from a few associates who consented to see it again. “After the show opened, we sent E-mails to everyone involved in the production,” says Faversham, “and our support has never waned.” The producer is even exploring the possibility of transferring the show to Seattle or Berkeley after it closes at the Athenaeum. As with any magic trick, half the battle is convincing people it’s possible.

They Do Not Like It, Sam I Am

Frank Galati’s Seussical, the Musical, which opened last week at the Colonial Theatre in Boston, reunites him with Ragtime composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens. But the Boston critics weren’t impressed by the show’s credentials or its musical pastiche of Dr. Seuss stories. “A phrase that might sum up the blandness of Seussical could be middle-of-the-road literal-mindedness,” wrote Ed Siegel in the Boston Globe. Terry Byrne of the Boston Herald was less negative but faulted the “ambitious effort to wrap so many of Seuss’s tales into one show.” The reviews don’t bode well for the Broadway premiere of Seussical in November, but if Robert Falls’s production of Aida is any indication, theatergoers no longer pay much attention to critics when buying tickets for big musicals. Few shows have sustained the level of abuse that greeted Aida when it opened on Broadway last March, yet the show has been playing to nearly 100 percent of capacity.

Behind the Red Curtain

Does the old Goodman Theatre have a date with the wrecker’s ball? This fall the Goodman organization will vacate the 680-seat proscenium theater at 200 S. Columbus to inaugurate its new building, on Dearborn between Lake and Randolph. Last November the Art Institute of Chicago, which owns the old theater, was negotiating with its sister institution, the School of the Art Institute, to jointly operate the performance space. SAIC had just struck up a partnership with Performing Arts Chicago to bring artists and events to town, and Susan Lipman, executive director for PAC, suggested that her organization might use various performance spaces owned by the school and the museum. But last week Lipman said that PAC has no plans to use the vacated Goodman space, and the Art Institute says it hasn’t decided what to do with it. However, noted architect Renzo Piano is currently designing a garden and new exhibition and support space for the Art Institute, and aside from the airspace over the Metra tracks, the only significant plot available to the museum is the one housing the theater.

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