Shuttered Off-Loop Theatres Reopen

Thanks to a vigorously proactive response, the League of Chicago Theatres, working with the mayor's office, has been able to expedite resolution of the licensing difficulties that shut five small Off-Loop theatres Nov. 21. The Profiles, TimeLine, and WNEP theatres already have reopened, with the Artistic Home and Playground Improv theatres set to relight soon, and all with required Public Place of Amusement (PPA) licenses. The city of Chicago Department of Revenue had sent police to close the houses in midperformance on a Friday night for operating without PPA licenses.

Of course, "expedite" means fast, not free, and several of the troupes had to cough up the dough for last-minute building and electrical improvements, mainly things such as new fire safety doors and emergency lighting systems. The troupes also were fined by the Department of Revenue in an unequal and quixotic application of enforcement procedures. While one troupe was not fined at all, the others paid amounts ranging from $350 to $1,500. The illogic of the fines and the department's actions in general—the November raids came at a time when the Department of Revenue was conducting ongoing talks with the league about simplifying the licensing process—are part of the reason the theatre industry and the press really jumped down the city's throat in covering this story.

The league hosted a town hall meeting for the theatre industry Feb. 23 at Theatre Building Chicago, at which league officials unveiled proposed changes to the PPA licensing procedures and building codes as they apply to Theatrical Community Centers (that is, most Off-Loop houses of 299 seats or less). The draft changes have been worked out by a task force organized by the office of Mayor Richard Daley to address the problem. The task force includes league officials, plus staffers from the city's Building, Fire, Revenue, and Cultural Affairs departments. The league also prepared and distributed "what you need to know" materials to brief theatre management on what to expect when the building, fire, electrical, plumbing, and HVAC inspectors come to call. The literature explains what inspectors look for and what they are likely to cite. Forewarned is forearmed.

The eleven-year-old Melissa Thodos & Dancers has scored a coup, engaging celebrated dancer and choreographer Ann Reinking to create a new piece for the troupe's March 11-14 home engagement. The Tony Award-winning Reinking is in residence most of this month in Chicago to work on the piece, as yet untitled. Details of the music to be used have not been released. Reinking also will serve as honorary chair of a gala benefit for the company.

Reinking is no stranger to Chicago or to Melissa Thodos. Reinking has choreographed two shows at the Goodman Theatre, a 1988 production of Pal Joey (which changed Joey, played by Kevin Anderson, from a dancer to a drummer) and the 2001 world premiere of The Visit, the Terrence McNally-John Kander-Fred Ebb musicalization of the famous play. That same year, Reinking invited Thodos to teach at the Broadway Theatre Project in Tampa, of which Reinking is artistic director. Thodos has returned twice, creating a new piece that premiered there in 2002, "Transcend."

The March 11-14 home stand in the theatre of the Harold Washington Library also will feature world premiere dances by Thodos herself and company member Paul Christiano, plus selections from the troupe's repertory.

Deep in the Republican bastion of DuPage County, immediately west of Chicago and Cook County, director Alison C. Vesely and producer David M. Rice have been digging a Shakespearean footprint in the fertile soil—literally—of the Mayslake Peabody Estate, once private property and now owned by the DuPage County Forest Preserve. Since 1996, First Folio has offered outdoor, summertime Shakespeare (and one Greek) in the estate's outdoor gardens. Now the company is going indoors with March 4-7 concert readings of The Importance of Being Earnest in the formal library of Mayslake Hall, the estate's 30-room Tudor Revival mansion. Built in 1922, the hall slowly is being fully restored by the county. The indication for First Folio is that DuPage County authorities see the company as having a year-round role to play at Mayslake. In addition to the indoor reading, the Forest Preserve District has approved the First Folio plan to construct a 250-seat permanent facility adjacent to the mansion.

It's only taken 324 years, but the Comédie-Française will make its long-overdue Chicago debut June 17-20 with four performances of Molière's Le Malade Imaginaire at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, in French with projected English titles. The brief stand is co-sponsored by the Alliance Française of Chicago and French Cultural Services. The production also will be at BAM directly preceding Chicago. While individual members of the Comédie-Française have appeared here before, or conducted workshops and master classes, the troupe previously has not been here with a full production. Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST) is having something of a Molière year, as its current offering is The Molière Comedies, directed by and starring Brian Bedford, along with a troupe of Chicago-based actors. CST is presenting the show at the Shubert Theatre through Feb. 22 in conjunction with Broadway in Chicago, rather than at its regular playhouse on Navy Pier.

The Goodman Theatre had a hit with The Light in the Piazza, the musical by Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel. The co-production with Seattle's Intiman Theatre was extended through Feb. 22. Ditto the umpteenth return of The Phantom of the Opera, this time at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. Broadway in Chicago has added three weeks to the run, which now will be March 3-May 2. Phantom first played the Auditorium Theatre for 39 weeks in 1990, returning to the Auditorium for 29 weeks in 1993, and 17 weeks in 1998 at the Civic Opera House. Well, business must be slowing down, because the venues are getting smaller. The Cadillac Palace has a mere 2,400 seats.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company has announced most of its 2004-05 subscription season, promising several highlights. Chief among them: John Mahoney and Tracy Letts in Ronald Harwood's The Dresser, directed by Amy Morton (Sept. 16-Nov. 14); John Malkovich in Lost Land, a new play by Stephen Jeffreys (March 31-June 12, 2005); and the world premiere of The Pain and the Itch by Bruce Norris (June 30-Aug. 28, 2005).