Return of the Locationally Challenged Theater Festival

The 1994 International Theatre Festival of Chicago is proving to be the latest example of why this city needs a midsize not-for-profit theater. The prestigious fifth biennial festival isn’t scheduled to begin its four-week run until next May, but it looks like the organizers are having some trouble finding a theater the right size for some of the not-for-profit festival’s key events, among them the North American premiere of talented British playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s newest work, Private Fears, Public Places.

In 1992 the festival was lucky enough to get use of the Steppenwolf space at 1650 N. Halsted, then brand-new, for several of its productions, and festival cofounder and executive director Jane Nicholl Sahlins asked if her organization could use it again in 1994. But in January Steppenwolf informed the festival that the theater would be otherwise occupied next spring. The search for an acceptable substitute has thus far yielded nothing, but Sahlins insists that the situation isn’t so desperate yet that it will impact on what the festival can import in 1994. “We don’t have to announce our schedule or lock things up until December,” she says. But before then she does have to figure out which companies to invite, based at least in part on what theaters the festival will be using.

Venues already firmed up include the DePaul-owned Merle Reskin Theatre (formerly the Blackstone), the 300-seat University of Illinois at Chicago Theater, and a new pavilion currently under construction at Navy Pier. The 1,400-seat Reskin will house the festival’s large-scale, big-ticket productions, and Sahlins says she is considering putting the Ayckbourn play there. Other sources both inside and outside festival operations, however, suggest that Private Fears, Public Places could be enough of a hit to continue its run indefinitely under the aegis of a commercial producer after the festival ends, and that Sahlins would like to find a more intimate venue (say, 500 seats) for it. (Sahlins says the festival would not be involved in any commercial run.) As in the past, management at commercially oriented theaters such as the Royal George, the Wellington, and the Briar Street have apparently been reluctant to commit to the festival so far in advance and risk losing other potentially lucrative productions that might come along.

The Royal George, now owned by producer Robert Perkins and New York-based Jujamcyn Theaters, would perhaps be the most desirable location for the festival to add, but the owners are already considering other commercial productions to bring in whenever the Michael Leavitt/Fox Theatricals presentation of Lost in Yonkers concludes its long run. Sahlins, meanwhile, is busy making arrangements for the festival’s first off-year production: three performances by the French Compagnie Philippe Genty, a dance troupe that uses life-size puppets, October 1 and 2. Whatever the outcome of the festival’s venue search, Sahlins remains undaunted: “We’ve always had to be creative about the spaces we use,” she says. “We are looking at this as a challenge.”

Angels in Chicago?

So what is next on the Royal George’s schedule? Most likely a production of Tony Kushner’s epic, Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America, sometime within the next year. But don’t look for a carbon copy of the $2-million-plus, critically acclaimed production now ensconced at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway. A source indicated the Chicago production of Angels in America will be more modestly scaled, so that it can manage a profitable but limited engagement and then perhaps tour other major markets. Producers Perkins and Jujamcyn are apparently of the opinion that the Chicago audience for Kushner’s controversial, at times provocative play might not be large enough to support an elaborate production in an open-ended run–a conclusion that makes sense if you look at the box office results of such recent “serious” plays as Six Degrees of Separation and Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love.

Annie Snubs Sugar Daddy

One unfortunate footnote to the Annie Warbucks saga: Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre producer Kary Walker, who footed the bill for the show’s world premiere here in February of 1992, lavishing money and attention on the work at a crucial stage in its development, was not invited to the show’s New York opening last week. Sources say the overt snub stems from the heroic and at times ugly battle Walker fought to control director/lyricist Martin Charnin’s runaway production expenses during the musical’s extended Chicago run, when it was going through almost daily rewrites.

New York reviews of Annie Warbucks’s opening at the off-Broadway Variety Arts Theatre last Monday were mixed. There’s not much danger of its closing overnight, however: New York coproducer Ben Sprecher said the production has been pulling in $20,000 to $25,000 a day in ticket sales since the opening. Sprecher has already shot a television commercial that began airing this week. Last week award-winning Chicago-based actress Alene Robertson, who has played the musical’s villainess since its Marriott’s Lincolnshire days, sounded relieved that the show had at last opened after four weeks of previews. The reviews for her performance, like those for the show, varied, but she admitted to being especially hurt by a dig from the New York Times Sunday critic David Richards, who suggested that she had a hard time keeping up with costar Donna McKechnie during an act-two dance sequence. (Veteran Howard Kissel, writing in the New York Daily News, called Robertson “smashing.”)

Annie Warbucks’s New York premiere marked the in-print premiere of Ben Brantley, the new second-string critic at the New York Times, who replaced the long-standing Mel Gussow. Times editors reportedly deemed Gussow too mealymouthed to continue reviewing alongside the acerbic Frank Rich.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.