Going Gladly: Tom Riccio’s Parting Shots

As the drums began to roll proclaiming the theatrical event of the season, Steppenwolf’s massive adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the saga of Okies heading west, our thoughts turned to Tom Riccio heading north, alone, hauling his few possessions in a flatbed jeep toward a new start in Fairbanks, Alaska.

“I’m from the midwest [Cleveland], but the perspective of Chicago I never really got in sync with, and I never got into playing the game of what sells here,” Riccio told us shortly before he left town, bringing to an end three unsatisfying years as artistic director of the Organic Theater. The theater community here never did warm to him, nor he to it. He left as he came, an outsider.

The trip up to Fairbanks took a week, and aside from the rock that bounced up and took out his back window, it was pretty uneventful. The scenery was gorgeous. Riccio collected his thoughts, and his mind didn’t change about Chicago theater.

“Except for a very few people, who are batted back, it aspires to a mediocrity,” he told us by phone the other day. “The subtext, the infrastructure pulls you back. Here,” he went on, meaning Fairbanks, “they want me to upset the order of things.”

We like Riccio, and we hope Alaska is good for him. But face it, when he came to Chicago he was told the same thing. “I was the first artistic director brought into Chicago from outside who didn’t come up through the ranks,” Riccio reflected before leaving. “And that’s why Stuart Gordon [his predecessor] brought me in–to shake them up. ‘Do your wildest thing’–that’s what he told me to do.” It’s what Stuart Gordon had done when he planted the Organic in Chicago; but there’d always been a certain sunniness to Gordon’s outlandish shows. Riccio debuted with Rubber City, a gloomy, hectic meditation on American iconography hot off his typewriter. An Elvis impersonator was the main role, and Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy figured in. Critics hated it.

Things never got much better with the critics. They didn’t like Betawulf; they didn’t like Titus Andronicus. Some of the offbeat artists that Riccio brought in, like Leonard Pitt, got good reviews but didn’t find audiences. Riccio says that a member of his own board told him one time he wanted the Organic to put on shows “I can bring my friends in Winnetka to.” Riccio’s not one to lose sleep over Winnetka. “A lot of theater is like painting to match upholstery,” he explained. “It’s theater to match someone’s mindset.” And he went on with characteristic bravado, “You can’t invite me to your house because I won’t be polite. I’ll put anything on the wall I want, and I’ll clash with everything you have.”

This past season gave Riccio his one clear critical success in Chicago, the mounting of a couple of short plays by Maria Fornes. Riccio reminded us that Fornes was unknown in Chicago even though she’d won several Obies in New York. The off-Broadway theater award, established years ago by the Village Voice, Riccio said, “has encouraged lots of adventurous artists.” Chicago media, he said, don’t.

“The problem with the Chicago critics is they treat everything the same,” Riccio said. “They’ll treat a visual opera like they will a realistic drama. Maybe because it’s the midwest, they appraise everything in very literal terms, rather than have the ability to make abstract leaps. They like a certain actor, a certain director. They have favorite companies. They have this middlebrow sensibility. They’re basically reviewers.”

Riccio’s last Organic show was Little Caesar. The Organic had hoped it would be a big hit and run all summer and it didn’t. We had a hand in the project. Riccio asked us to help adapt W.S. Burnett’s 1929 crime novel, whose prototypical language (“take him for a ride”; “you can dish it out but you can’t take it”) reads like a glossary of mob patois. The myth of the Chicago gangster was right up Riccio’s alley; he built a tilted set, the first raked stage we’d seen in Chicago, and jazzed up Little Caesar with over-the-top gestures, cartoon props, snatches of opera, and shadows the length of a truck. The tone of the show was tricky, not exactly serious to be sure, but rarely going for laughs. People got caught up in Little, Caesar or tended to hate it.

Midway through the run, a Saturday night show had to be canceled: the composer of the original music, in a snit because he hadn’t been paid yet, walked off with all the tapes. That was rock bottom for Little Caesar. By the end of the run the cast had the show cooking, and we could sit in the front row and beam for two hours. But by then there weren’t many people in the rows behind us, and Riccio had turned in his resignation.

“A lot of people my age are very dissatisfied with theater here,” Riccio told us. “It’s not talking to them. It’s a very upper-middle-class white thing to do. In two or three years it’ll disintegrate into nothing. But the first warning signals are going up. The League [of Chicago Theatres] is starting to see that. There’s a Sears, Ward’s, McDonald’s mentality–give the public a known quantity. It’s very consumer oriented. There’s a real lack of adventure . . .

“I like to do theater that I’ve never seen before,” said Riccio. “Right now I’m into the kinetic exploration of space.”

Riccio has lots of that to explore in Alaska. His new job is running the theater department at the state university in Fairbanks. “I found this beautiful home,” he told us. “It’s an A-frame with a 15-by-20-foot deck overlooking the Tanana River and the Alaska Range. In the distance you can see Mount McKinley. It was so quiet the other night I couldn’t go to sleep.”

Riccio’s first show in Fairbanks will be Extremities, which the school had already committed to, and the next one will be Marat/Sade, “in honor of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.” After that, he intends to roll up his sleeves and take on the state. Riccio wants to do something on the precariousness of native culture, and to that end he’s already signed up for lessons in tribal dance forms. “Their culture is more abstract and nonlinear [than our own],” said Riccio, “which is right up my alley.”

Fairbanks, Riccio told us, is made up of two kinds of people: “fundamentalist Christians and liberal granola crunchers, which is what they’re called up here. But everyone’s very tolerant. Here, everyone’s attitude is ‘it’s a big country.'”

Chicago, as he remembers it, wasn’t like that. There was never enough money to go around (never mind audience), and success at one theater was eyed by others with jealousy and suspicion. “That’s a commercial atmosphere,” said Riccio.

Always outspoken about Chicago theater, which didn’t make him any more popular, Riccio said about it as he left: “Right now, its big concern is marketing, subscriptions. It’s becoming marketing heavy. You look at any theater, and you probably see its marketing expenditures exceeding its artistic expenditures. It’s a dilemma nationwide.” In five years, he predicted, “there’ll be about five big producers: the Goodman, Steppenwolf, Michael Cullen, maybe Northlight . . .

“What’s curious for me is the whole rise of the need to do theater. Why in Chicago in the past 20 years has there been such a need to perform, and I go out to a theater on a Friday night and there are five people in the audience? I wonder if it’s symptomatic of the age we live in. Everyone needs to be a star. Which dovetails, you can see, into my interest in American mythology.”

Marv Rotblatt Is Not Dead

Not as dead as some book readers might think he is, Marvin Rotblatt demands his day in court.

We wrote a while back about Toscanini’s Fumble, a breezy collection of case studies by the eminent Chicago neurologist Harold Klawans. Klawans protected his patients by giving them the names of old baseball players. Marvin Rotblatt won four games total for the White Sox between 1948 and 1951. “Marv Rotblatt” is a boyhood friend who comes to Dr. Klawans dying of a hideous brain inflammation, progressive multifocal leukoencephalitis (PML).

Rotblatt told us, “A client of mine called me and said ‘How are you feeling, Marv?’ First he said, ‘Marv?’–like he wasn’t sure it was me. He said, ‘My wife just finished this book, she’s in shock.’ So I went out and read it and I tell you, I was getting psychosomatic shocks when I read the chapter.”

The “Rotblatt” chapter begins: “Marvin Rotblatt was the first patient I saw in consultation at Michael Reese Hospital. I recognized him immediately. We had been friends during a couple of years of high school, especially the summer the White Sox, paced by the pitching of Virgil Trucks and Billy Pierce and the all-around play of Minnie Minoso, Nellie Fox, and Chico Carrasquel, gave the Yankees a good run for their money.”

At the end of the chapter, Klawans mentions that he was writing about someone “called Marv Rotblatt”; but the real Rotblatt thinks the damage has been done. He just filed suit in circuit court against Klawans and the publisher, Contemporary Books, Inc. Rotblatt wants the book taken out of circulation, and he’s after some sort of not yet specified monetary damages.

“This has got me dead!” said Rotblatt, who sells insurance now. “Who knows who would have called me with a quarter of a million dollars worth of business? It’s got to be defamation of character or something.”

In the book, Dr. Klawans makes an ingenious diagnosis and begins a daring, desperate treatment. But it fails. “The last time I examined him, he was totally blind, could not move his left side at all, and could hardly move his right side. His speech was slurred. Swallowing was getting more and more difficult. . . . His PML was destroying his brain.”

Two weeks later “Marv Rotblatt” is dead. In a touching conclusion, his lesion-riddled brain is being sliced open before Dr. Harold Klawans, who wistfully remembers their good old days together at Comiskey Park.

Klawans thinks Marvin Rotblatt is out of line. “He is the single most sympathetic character in that entire book,” said the author.

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