Renter Beware

This much is clear: John Beckman made no deals with the devil before Visions & Voices Theatre Company, which he manages, opened its current production, The Devil’s Sonata. If he had, he could have at least expected better reviews. And he could have been counting cash from ticket sales instead of giving every seat away, refusing money from folks who come in with their wallets open, and refunding anything paid in advance. If Beckman had followed the example of Baroque composer Giuseppe Tartini–the main character in this new play by local author Mark Glinski–he wouldn’t have learned a scant four days before moving into Strawdog Theatre that, in 15 years of residency at 3829 N. Broadway, Strawdog had never bothered to get a public place of amusement license, which allows a venue to charge admission.

Heck, a little handshake with Satan might have kept the city from dropping in on March 21 to check out someone else in the building, leaving a cease-and-desist order for V&V just one day after Devil’s Sonata started previews. It might have prevented a visit from the cops, brandishing a Sun-Times article about the show, 15 minutes before curtain on opening night, when the audience had to swear that none of them had been asked to drop a dime in the donation box. Suffering this exquisite can only mean Beckman is on the path to heaven. As for the show, it runs through April 27 with Tartini’s music, Poi Dog Pondering violinist Susan Voelz, and a nice set by Susan Kaip to recommend it; after that maybe Glinski will cut his own Faustian deal. At press time Beckman and V&V artistic director Brian Alan Hill were hoping Strawdog would get a dispensation from the city that would allow them to start charging. If not, Beckman says they’ll finish the run anyway. “We explored all the scenarios,” he adds. “We thought about selling a $15 program, a $15 bottle of water. The Department of Revenue said no, it’s all the same thing.”

Strawdog board chairman Gregory Altman says the theater ran “under the radar” all these years in its second-floor space, getting its first visit from the city in January. A team of inspectors produced a list of repairs to complete before a PPA license could be issued, most of which are done. “The thing that’s going to hang us up is ventilation,” Altman says. “We’ve been fund-raising for air-conditioning for a while; our plan was to install it this summer. I’ll be asking the city this week to allow us to operate while we do that.” In the meantime, V&V will not be paying rent. (Strawdog pays $750 a month for the space and rents its main stage for $800.) Altman says the city has been cooperative, thanks to the influence of the League of Chicago Theatres, and “is just doing its job.” But “we’re hurtin’ for cash over at the Dog right now. We had to cancel our Saint Patrick’s Day fund-raiser, and unless something happens we won’t be able to charge for our next show.” Strawdog’s Spring Awakening is slated to open May 17.

Culture Crime

What’s the law good for? It “puts the lower bounds on acceptable human conduct,” says Loyola University law school professor Anne-Marie Rhodes, who was one of ten speakers at the school’s wide-ranging art and law conference last weekend. Cultural property is a growing legal field, says Rhodes, spawning its own standards for lower bounds. You might own a Rembrandt, for example, but you can’t use it as a dartboard. You might win a war, but you can’t claim your opponent’s cultural goodies as spoils. You can’t keep anything looted from Native American graves, and a fair amount of what sits on museum shelves is looking iffy. D.C. lawyer James A. Goold told the audience that in the case of Spanish ships sunk beneath New World waters, for instance, finders-keepers no longer applies. (A few years ago Goold litigated on behalf of the Spanish government in a case involving two ships found off the Virgina-Maryland coast and won a precedent-setting judgment that stiffed the treasure hunters.) FBI special agent Michelle Sutphin said the United States is the world’s largest market for stolen cultural property. When it’s swiped from museums, about 80 percent of the time it’s an inside job, usually pulled off in storage areas where months or years can pass before anything’s missed.

Undeterred by the presence of Sutphin, artist Ray Beldner marched to the podium to brag that he’s violated two sections of the federal legal code. Beldner copies famous artworks in money, stitching dollar bills together, for example, to mimic creations by Picasso or Warhol. One of the artists included in the recent “Illegal Art” exhibit at the In These Times offices, he echoed the argument made by that show that fair-use exceptions to copyright are undermined by the threat of lawsuits from powerful corporations. Beldner, who believes “collage is no longer a technique–it’s now a way of thinking,” took Matt Groening to task for suing Bunnyhop magazine when it appropriated one of his characters. New York University law professor Amy Adler said “obscenity law evaluates postmodern art by the very standards the art is meant to defy.” And Loyola antitrust expert Spencer Waller said the thing that got Christie’s and Sotheby’s into trouble was collusion: if Sotheby’s honcho Alfred Taubman had raised prices all by himself, he might never have been the richest man in prison. Sally Metzler and Rachel Baker of Loyola’s D’Arcy Museum of Art, which cosponsored the conference, showed slides of crime and punishment beginning with the Crucifixion. Metzler says they’re not yet ready to announce a piece of news that slipped out at the podium: within the next few years D’Arcy will move from the north side to the downtown campus, where it’ll have higher visibility.

In Other News . . .

No joke: Auditorium Theatre Council chairman Melvin Katten issued an April Fools’ Day announcement that Jan Kallish, the theater’s executive director during years of rancorous legal battling between the council and Roosevelt University, has “resigned effective immediately.” Kallish says she agreed to that wording but was terminated….The Guild Complex is offering a new poetry fellowship, funded by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. The winner will get $10,000 and have a chapbook published. Application deadline is May 31; details at www.guild….The Stars Our Destination bookstore, which trekked from Chicago to Evanston a few years ago, has traded its storefront for a “mail-order only existence” at….And, in case there’s any danger of us getting too merry, Court Theatre, which just announced its 2003-’04 season, will reprise last year’s production of James Joyce’s The Dead as a new holiday tradition.

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