Halfway House

After seven years at the Royal George Theatre Center, Flanagan’s Wake was out on the street in June. The Noble Fool Theater Company’s lease with the Royal George had run out, and the company’s new home in the Loop, to be built with the help of a $1 million TIF grant from the city, was still nothing but a gutted shell. Doesn’t the Book of Kevin say anything about the folly of construction schedules?

Noble Fool had expected to be using its new theater in the former Old Heidelberg restaurant by spring. But by February it was clear that wasn’t going to happen: the Art Institute, which owns the building at 16 W. Randolph, was still waiting for its contractor to finish work on the outer shell before the tenant’s construction could begin. Meanwhile, the Royal George had leased its space. It looked like Noble Fool would be homeless for six months or more when, glory be, the leprechauns at City Hall sprang to its aid. Last Wednesday, June 27, the City Council approved a temporary lease for the company in a city-owned building. Just two days later–a month after their last show at the Royal George–Flanagan’s Wake, an audience participatory spoof, and a second Fool production, Sopranos satire The Baritones, opened in the former Hit or Miss clothing store at 8 E. Randolph, within spitting distance of the Old Heidelberg.

Artistic director Jimmy Binns says by recycling a lot of what they found in the store they were able to remount the show for about $7,000. Left-behind wood paneling helped transform the rear of the space into the cozy back room of an Irish pub; panty hose racks became program racks; and the store’s checkout counter has been turned into a bar. A former currency exchange next door is now a roomy, ultra-high-security box office. Managing director Greg Gilmore says the temporary space will give them a chance to build an audience in the Loop and test new systems–like running their own box office, something they didn’t have to deal with at the Royal George. Binns is planning to try out noon improv, after-hours improv, and a cabaret show. It’ll be good for fund-raising, too, Gilmore adds: “We can bring potential donors here for the show or presentations and then walk them down to the permanent space.”

Binns and Gilmore acquired their titles earlier this year, as Noble Fool geared up to make its leap into the theater district. Among other things, Gilmore ran Aurora’s Paramount Arts Centre for 11 years; Binns has been with Noble Fool since the beginning. He was one of the founders of the company (as Zeitgeist Theatre, in 1994) and one of eight creators of Flanagan’s Wake, developed at the Improv Institute soon after Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding came to town. Binns says Zeitgeist was a very small company two years ago when then board chairman Paul Botts read a newspaper report that the Art Institute wanted a theater in its Block 36 development and picked up a phone. “We just cold-called and pitched,” says Binns. “They liked it that we were a nonprofit comedy theater.”

Noble Fool’s 8,000-square-foot, two-story permanent home will include three performance spaces: a 150-seat main stage, a 100-seat studio, and a 60-seat cabaret. Construction was originally budgeted at $2.5 million. But based on their $1 million TIF grant and the $800,000 in additional funds they had raised, they got only a $2.1 million construction loan. “We’ve redesigned and are rebidding this week and next,” Gilmore says. “Our hope is they’ll come in within the funds we have in hand.” A recent $125,000 DCCA grant may help cover any gap. They hope to be in the permanent space in November, but nobody’s willing to wager on it.

Great Beast’s Cop Drama

For most of its four years, Great Beast Theater had been an itinerant troupe. It shared an Andersonville space with Sweetback Productions for a while, then six months ago found a home for itself–a room above the Inner Town Pub at Thomas and Winchester. Great Beast was performing Romulus Linney’s Ambrosio there May 14 when a couple of women who showed up late were asked for a $10 donation each or whatever they could pay. Bingo: out came the badges and the flash-equipped camera. After they turned on lights, disrupted the performance, and took photos of the audience, says Beast founder Michael Martin, the plainclothes cops went downstairs and ticketed Inner Town for charging admission without a public place of amusement license. Martin, a paralegal by day, got the ticket reissued to Beast instead of the bar, did a bunch of legal research, and asked his boss to represent Great Beast. He hoped to set a precedent regarding whether donations constitute an admission charge, but when they showed up for a court date last week “we were in and out in 15 minutes,” he says. “The case was dropped. It seems the city had lost interest.” So maybe the theater wasn’t really the target? “Like any neighborhood bar,” Martin says, “Inner Town has its detractors.” The bar is still there; Great Beast is out.

Seeing Blue

Late Nite Catechism creator and producer Vicki Quade was “a little bit miffed” when she came upon this proclamation by columnist Chris Jones in last Friday’s Tribune: “When it comes to long-running shows in Chicago, the gold standard remains Blue Man Group, which has now been running for nearly four years at the Briar Street Theatre. With the recent demise of Forever Plaid, Blue Man can now claim the title of the longest-running show in the city.” Notes Quade: “Late Nite Catechism is in its ninth year, Hellcab opened before we did by about six months and is still running, and Flanagan’s Wake is in its eighth year.” And unlike Blue Man, “these shows all originated in Chicago.” So did Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, which has been running since 1988. It’s enough to try the patience of a nun. Catechism is playing in the Royal George space vacated by Flanagan’s Wake.

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