Last fall the board of directors for the long-delayed Music and Dance Theater Chicago appeared to hit paydirt: after nearly a decade spent looking for an appropriate site, it struck a deal with the city to build an underground, 1,500-seat venue as part of the $150 million Lakefront Millennium Park. The theater would provide a downtown performance space for more than a dozen small and midsize organizations, including Music of the Baroque, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Chicago Sinfonietta, Chicago Opera Theater, and Performing Arts Chicago. But now the city may have earmarked nearly $27 million for a huge white elephant. The Art Institute of Chicago is negotiating with its sister institution, the School of the Art Institute, to jointly operate the museum’s 680-seat proscenium theater as a performance space after the Goodman Theatre vacates it next summer. Originally the museum planned to devote the space to other uses, but SAIC dean Carol Becker says the school is definitely interested in raising its visibility as a presenter of cutting-edge performance art and other productions. If the Music and Dance Theater opens on schedule in spring 2002, it could wind up competing for bookings with a more attractive space right across the street.

Becker says details of the new arrangement are still fluid, but in early October SAIC and Performing Arts Chicago inked a deal to bring innovative artists and events to Chicago, and she expects Susan Lipman, executive director of PAC, to play an important role in whatever productions are mounted at the former Goodman space. “We are not turning the theater over to Susan,” says Becker, “but she will certainly have access to it.” Access to the space would be a welcome development for the financially strapped PAC, which has been forced in recent years to book relatively large, expensive venues that it couldn’t fill. In less than a year, PAC and all the other itinerant performing arts organizations that have been waiting for the Music and Dance Theater to materialize could have a comfortable venue downtown at what’s sure to be a competitive rental rate. And worst of all for the Music and Dance Theater, the former Goodman space is a nonunion facility, whereas the proposed venue in Millennium Park would exceed the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees’ 1,000-seat threshold and might have to hire union stagehands and box office personnel.

Joyce Moffatt, general manager of the proposed theater, said she hadn’t spoken to Lipman since PAC announced its new arrangement with the School of the Art Institute and didn’t yet know how it would affect PAC’s use of the Music and Dance Theater. But the city has plenty of wiggle room: more than a year after it agreed to the idea in principle, its contracts with the board of directors have yet to be finalized, and Moffatt says no construction will begin until all of them have been signed. Adds Moffatt, “We’re working on that all the time.”

Charming John Malkovich

We can’t really climb inside John Malkovich’s head, but something about Chicago fringe actress Lusia Strus has captured the imagination of the Steppenwolf ensemble member. Theatergoers might remember Strus from her seven-year stint in the cast of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, the Neo-Futurists’ improvised anthology of 30 plays presented in 60 minutes. Public-radio fans might recognize her as the throaty program announcer on WBEZ. But Strus was reluctant to discuss the events that catapulted her into the cast of Hysteria, Steppenwolf’s upcoming production of the Terry Johnson play, to be directed by Malkovich. “It was a peculiar little story,” she says, “but I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

Strus apparently was at Steppenwolf taking care of some business with casting director Phyllis Schuringa when she passed Malkovich in the hallway. Their eyes met. “Hello,” said Strus. Malkovich “immediately began his pursuit,” according to one source. He told Schuringa that he had to have Strus for Hysteria, and a call went out to Strus’s agent. Later that day Strus was rehearsing for her next role, in the Roadworks production of David Sedaris’s The SantaLand Diaries (a job she’d negotiated on her own). Her agent reached Strus on her cell phone, and soon the actress was auditioning for Malkovich, who subsequently welcomed her to the cast of Hysteria.

Strus will play a relatively small part in the show, but she’ll also understudy the roles of Salvador Dali and Sigmund Freud (the latter will be played by European Repertory’s Yasen Peyankov, who’s replaced Steppenwolf ensemble member Alan Wilder). The Steppenwolf gig is a stroke of luck for Strus, but it left Roadworks in the lurch. The company quickly replaced her with Laura T. Fisher but had to move its opening night at Victory Gardens Studio Theater from November 18 to November 28. Meanwhile Strus is trying to stay focused on her new assignment: “It all happened in one intense day, but now I need to memorize a lot of lines.”

Sword Play

Traditionally, late-night theater has been produced by fringe companies operating on minuscule budgets, but Xena Live!, which opened this week at About Face Theatre, could pull the genre closer to the mainstream. Coproducers About Face and Greasy Joan & Company have sunk $10,000 into the show, more than many fringe theaters shell out for a main-stage production. Instead of parodying an old TV rerun, they’ve bought the rights to a current cult hit–Xena: Warrior Princess–and commissioned a script by respected local playwright Claudia Allen, whose Winter was presented this summer at the Victory Gardens Theater. Xena Live! will feature an array of leather costumes, elaborate sword fights choreographed by veteran stage-fight master David Woolley, no fewer than 330 sound cues that will simulate every thwack and zonk of combat, and mock commercials for the show’s sponsors, Subaru and the Internet site Planet Out. Rob Tapert, creator of the TV series, has restricted the new stage version to Chicago only, but if it sustains as long a run as other late-night favorites, About Face and Greasy Joan could see a substantial payoff. “From the start we wanted to make this a really high caliber of late-night theater,” explains Greasy Joan producer Amy Matheny. “There’s a lot more in this show than just the front of a cab.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Godfrey Carmona.