Look Homeward, Stuart

Ourmottowas ‘Theater Is Fun,'” says Stuart Gordon, recalling his 15-year stretch at the helm of the Organic Theater Company, one of the first of the great off-Loop theater troupes. But Gordon ended up leaving Chicago and the Organic more than a decade ago to make horror and science-fictionmoviesin Hollywood. His first, the darkly comic H.P. Lovecraft adaptation Re-Animator, was so well received that the studio ended up making a sequel. Meanwhile, back in Chicago the theater company Gordon cofounded began to flounder as it went through a succession of leaders. What was once an ensemble became more of a producing organization. The Organic began to lose steam, and many wondered if the company would survive.

Then earlier this year director Ina Marlowe approached the Organic board about a possible merger with her own struggling not-for-profit Touchstone Theatre. A deal to formally join the two groups was finalized last summer, and Marlowe sent Gordon a letter requesting a meeting to discuss ways in which now-famous Organic alumni could get involved with the new company. Gordon flew into town for discussions with Marlowe during the summer and again last week. He told her he was interested in doing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, possibly with former Organic members Dennis Franz, Joe Mantegna, and Meshach Taylor.

“I want to encourage the successful actors I worked with to come back, in the same way that Steppenwolf stars return to appear at their theater,” says Gordon, who first thought of depicting Caesar as Richard J. Daley back in the 70s. “I love Shakespeare, and I think Julius Caesar is one of his most political plays.” Though he now has to fish for a new concept, he would still like the production to be Chicago specific, maybe falling back on that old standby, organized crime.

Recently Gordon was in Ireland and London shooting and editing his latest movie, Space Truckers, starring Dennis Hopper and George Wendt. The film, which follows truck drivers who haul giant rigs through space, will be screened in January at the Cultural Center as a benefit for the Organic Touchstone Company. Before committing to Julius Caesar, however, Gordon says he wants to stage workshop tryouts on the west coast this winter. If he’s pleased with the results, the show could open the 1997-’98 Organic Touchstone season on the old Organic main stage at 3319 N. Clark.

Founded in 1969, the Organic started out with the remnants of an experimental theater that Gordon had led in Madison, Wisconsin, where he’d attracted a lot of publicity (and the cops) for staging Peter Pan with nine nude women dancers. After getting arrested for that show, Gordon, his wife Carolyn, and two friends decamped to Chicago and joined the budding north-side theater scene. Gordon mounted an unprecedented string of hits and in three short years created what Reader critic Terry Curtis Fox called “an establishmentof theatrical energy and accomplishment unmatched anywhere in the city.”

Those early showsflouted realistic conventions by making extensive use of special effects, includingwild lighting, costumes, and makeup.The most successful of these productions was the science-fiction serial Warp!, inspiredbythe Marvel superhero comic books. Warp! went to Broadway, where it flopped. Many believe the show was ahead of its time–it predated the Star Wars phenomenon by just a few years. Later Organic plays under Gordon were more naturalistic, ensemble-driven takes on everyday life, including the highly successful Bleacher Bums and E/R.

Gordon admits to missing the immediacy of live theater. “Doing movies you feel like you’re talking to yourself a lot of the time, but theater is a direct two-way communication with an audience.” He’s directed only one play since moving to Los Angeles, a piece about child abuse called Ghostman more than six years ago. He hopes the newly merged Organic Touchstone entity will be able to survive by appealing to a young audience, one of his primary missions when he founded his company.

Maggio on the Move?

As Stuart Gordon talked of coming home, another formidable theater talent was looking to get out of town. Several sources confirm that Goodman Theatre associate artistic director Michael Maggio is on a short list of finalists under consideration to become artistic director of the 34-year-old Seattle Repertory Theatre, one of the west coast’s most prestigious companies. And Maggio is reportedly very interested in the job. Seattle Rep spokeswoman Linda Glass says a list of more than a hundred candidates has been whittled down to a handful, but a final decision won’t be announced until later this month. Yet one source claims that by last week the search committee had already informed a disappointed Maggio that the job would probably go to Sharon Ott, artistic director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre for 13 years and reportedly the only other out-of-town candidate in serious contention for the job.

The last time Maggio held such a position was in the mid-80s, when he was Northlight Theatre’s artistic director for a couple of seasons. But due to poor health he resigned and soon thereafter hooked up with Robert Falls at the Goodman. Since a successful lung transplant several years ago, Maggio has been at the top of his form. Though he’s free to pick and choose his projects, he nonetheless has not been in a position to shape the overall artistic output at the Goodman, where Falls shows no sign yet of relaxing his grip.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Stuart Gordon photo by Davis Barber.