Redmoon’s Monster Hit

For the past six years, Redmoon Theater has been honing its unique style of puppet and mask performance in locations as scattered as Logan Square, North Avenue Beach, Garfield Park, and the Around the Coyote festival. Now the company’s at Steppenwolf, garnering rave reviews for its production of Frankenstein. But don’t expect Redmoon to lose its adventurous edge. “Our goal is to make exciting theater that involves the audience and demands their participation,” says artistic director Jim Lasko.

Like most arts groups, Redmoon had a humble beginning. Founder Blair Thomas was the community outreach coordinator at Wisdom Bridge in the late 1980s, staging plays in schools, community centers, and halfway houses in the Rogers Park area. Though Thomas was working in his chosen field, he’d grown disillusioned with the traditional actor-centered approach to theater. During his brief stint as the assistant artistic director of the Organic Theater under the troubled reign of Tom Riccio, Thomas began to think again of his first love: puppetry.

“Between the ages of 9 and 14, I had a puppet theater in Alabama,” Thomas says. “I’d make shows with my friends. We’d get together and talk, create marionettes and music, and perform in churches and schools. It’s kind of close to what we do now.” Starting out with a $1,000 nest egg, Thomas launched Redmoon with the idea of combining his interests in community outreach and object-based theater. “All along I was moving in the direction of putting on the stage what I really wanted to see there.”

Right from the beginning Redmoon tried to involve groups of senior citizens and kids, a tradition that Thomas says is still integral to the company’s aesthetic. “When you make theater with nontheater people, they let you know very quickly if it’s dull, and that forces you to strive for a level of integrity you might not otherwise reach.” Shows were developed in collaborative workshops. In each instance, Thomas says, the aim was to create art accessible to a wide range of audiences.

As Redmoon matured, the company attracted donations from individuals as well as a major grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. According to managing director Yolanda Cursach, the theater now has an annual operating budget of close to $200,000. Cursach joined the group only a month ago as Redmoon’s first business staffer. Previously Thomas and Lasko split the business chores while also trying to develop artistic product, a division of duties that proved increasingly untenable. Cursach, who was a production manager for Performing Arts Chicago, believes the Redmoon showcase at Steppenwolf will prove beneficial as she attempts to secure additional corporate and government funding.

Steppenwolf artistic director Martha Lavey thinks the company reflects the best aspects of Chicago’s theater industry, which, for the moment anyway, has lost a lot of its sparkle. “Redmoon is the real thing. They are earnest, smart, and wildly creative, and I have enormous respect for their work.” Yet Thomas isn’t looking to make Redmoon into another Steppenwolf. “I am not interested in developing an institution,” he says. “As an artist, I am driven by the energy of the moment.”

Royal George Dining Out

The Royal George Theatre Center may be about to undergo a major change. A source close to owners Robert Perkins and Jujamcyn Theaters says the producers are trying to buy out the lease on a Greek restaurant in the complex in order to turn it into a 200-seat theater. “Perkins and Jujamcyn have seen the future, and it’s small theaters,” notes the observer. While Perkins and Jujamcyn have had difficulty finding product that could run profitably in the 500-seat main theater, they are making money on Forever Plaid, which is now in its second year in the Royal George’s smaller cabaret theater. Paul Rudnick’s I Hate Hamlet has been running on the main stage since November, even though the production received mixed reviews. It’s unknown whether the show is close to earning back the several hundred thousand dollars it cost to mount.

A source at Petros Diana’s, the restaurant in question, vehemently denied that there have been any efforts to shut the place down. “It is a lie, and I don’t want this in the newspaper.” But the area around the Royal George and the Steppenwolf Theatre across the street already has several popular restaurants, and Perkins and Jujamcyn may have concluded they could do better without a restaurant on-site. A project from comedians Aaron Freeman and Rob Kolson is reportedly under consideration to open the newest Royal George space.

Splinter Group’s Star Search

Splinter Group’s last-minute search for a star to replace John Larroquette in the Buckets o’ Beckett festival brought it back to the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which is also supplying ensemble member John Mahoney. Steppenwolf’s Robert Breuler will team up with New York-based performance artist Jonathan Harris in Beckett’s Endgame, scheduled to run May 16 through 19. Harris, codirector of the New York City International Fringe Theatre Festival, appeared last month in Splinter Group’s Solopalooza festival of solo performers. While Breuler’s not a TV star like Larroquette, he is a well-known actor in Chicago’s theater scene and has also appeared in the 1994 Lincoln Center revival of Carousel. Despite the changes in Splinter’s talent lineup, tickets to the Beckett festival are selling well, already bringing in close to $35,000. If things continue at this pace, the company expects $60,000 in advance ticket sales by opening night.

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