Sunday, March 11, 2001

Blown away by the Windy City

Ayckbourn, 'Producers' hot theater tickets

        I recently took a mid-winter weekend break in Chicago figuring that while the wind might be blistering (it was), the theater would warm me up (it did.)

        Mostly I wanted a look at Chicago's resident theater, the Goodman, in its new home in the heart of a new theater district. And I wanted to see The Producers,which was running in its pre-Broadway tryout around the corner in the gorgeously rehabbed Cadillac Palace.

        The Goodman was presenting the American premiere of House/Garden by Britain's endlessly inventive Alan Ayckbourn.

        Mr. Ayckbourn is an adept comic writer who loves theatrical tricks. House/Garden is the theatrical equivalent of a high-wire act that has two plays taking place simultaneously as the cast runs back and forth between theaters.

        The Goodman couldn't ask for a better piece to show off its new complex. For all that the plays were beautifully designed, expertly directed by artistic director Robert Falls and smartly acted, the thing I loved was listening to the audiences at intermission. (The shows break together and share a curtain call.)

        Theatergoers were engaged as much by the idea of what was going on as by the work itself. What they were seeing (and weren't seeing) was all they talked about. They talked to other theatergoers, checking to see who knew what. They stuck their noses in the other playing space to check it out.

        I wish this kind of anticipation and engagement could be bottled. Seeing the double-header was also a reminder of what a marvelous talent Mr. Ayckbourn is and how little we see of his work.

        While the audience members I spoke to all preferred House, I found it to be a standard-issue English manor house comedy of manners centering on a would-be MP who can't keep his pants zipped.

        Garden is something else again, a slip down Alice in Wonderland's rabbit hole, a trip to a green world that can't be contained by four walls. It's where the unlikeliest people do the unlikeliest things, some of them emotionally shattering for all that it's a comedy.

        Other Chicago observations:

        • Local government and business has been investing millions in theater, and it's paying off. A district of the city is revived, people are everywhere. Most of the upper-tier theaters were sold out throughout the weekend.

        I couldn't get into the new Shakespeare Festival theater that anchors the revitalized Navy Pier even though I called weeks ahead of time.

        • Every theater I visited had comfortable seats.

        Think about Cincinnati, where Ensemble's seats are impossibly low, the Shelterhouse rows are too close together and Cincinnati Shakespeare's loungy, rocking seats aren't meant for viewing live theater.

        I have a theory that if Ensemble's seats were five inches higher off the floor, ETC could sell twice as many subscriptions.

        • They can't all be gems. The acclaimed Steppenwolf was offering an adaptation of David Copperfield. It's hard to make grand storyteller Charles Dickens dull going, but this script, which was more narration than action, managed. Too bad.

        • The Producers is going to need a shopping cart for its Tony Awards, led by Nathan Lane who makes a naughty pixie of Max Bialystock, a bad producer who has the bright idea of selling 25,000 percent of the worst musical ever produced.

        It's vintage Mel Brooks, and a welcome relief from all the by-the-book musicals that have debuted lately. There's nothing sadder than knowing what's going to happen next. You may know what's ultimately going to happen in The Producers, but the show never lets you guess how it's going to get there.

        The audience at a Saturday matinee demonstrated how much theatergoers still like to be surprised. The applause lasted long beyond the final curtain call.

        Talking "Art': The free Playhouse Perspectives lecture for Art on April 1 moves a tad down Eden Park Drive to Cincinnati Art Museum.

        Yasmina Reza's Tony winning comedy is about three friends and an all-white painting that shows cracks in their relationships (if not the canvas) as they debate art vs. sham.

        Museum director Timothy Rub and Contemporary Arts Center director Charles Desmarais will discuss the nature of contemporary art. It's hoped no blows will be exchanged. The program starts at 5:30 p.m. in the museum auditorium.

        Musical "Merchant': “We're very lucky to have actors who can do this,” Cincinnati Shakespeare artistic director Jasson Minadakis notes.

        “This” is provide the musical underpinnings to Cincinnati Shakespeare's riveting The Merchant of Venice.

        One of the humanizing elements to moneylender Shylock (Jeremy Dubin) is his inclination to pensively play Jewish folk songs on a guitar. Anne E. Schilling makes the idyllic estate where Portia greets her suitors even more idyllic by providing harp accompaniment.

        Mr. Dubin does not profess to be a musician, but he can find his way around a guitar to sing songs he learned at summer camp as a youngster.

        He's delighted to be having an opportunity to add dimension to his character, which, as written, is that of a miserly, money-grubbing villain.

        “There's so much music in the text, so many songs in the text, so much talk about music — Shylock is even accused of being "a man with no music in his soul.'

        “That isn't true. Music is an important part of the Jewish culture because of our nomadic history. It's how we've always carried our history, our culture, our stories,” Mr. Dubin remarks.

        Ms. Schilling brought her harp with her to Cincinnati when she joined the festival company at the beginning of this season.

        “I started playing in college. I decided if I was going to be an actor, I should learn an instrument. It was either going to be the guitar or the harp, and I decided to go for diversity,” she says, laughing.

        Merchant continues through next Sunday at the festival, 719 Race St. Box office: 381-2273.

        Legendary name: New Edgecliff's Michael Shooner is pleased as punch that his theater's next production is going to carry the Selznick name. Daniel Selznick, son of legendary Hollywood producer David O., will direct Southern Discomfort, which opens at the Aronoff's Fifth Third Bank Theater in April.

        The contemporary black comedy was presented last fall as part of Ensemble Studio Theatre's Octoberfest of developing new work in New York. Mr. Selznick is chairman of the theater's board and came on board for the Cincinnati production at the request of playwright Randall David Cook.

        Mr. Selznick has had quite a career, including producing and directing off-Broadway and, fresh out of Harvard, being an assistant to Sir Laurence Olivier.

        For reservations call the Aronoff box office at (513) 241-7469. For information about New Edgecliff call (513) 763-3844.

        Designing winner: Ann Hould-Ward, who paraded some of the best costumes Cincinnati has seen in her fabulously comic-book take on Dark Paradise: Legend of the Five-Pointed Star, has just won a big prize.

        Earlier this week, the Tony winner was named as the recipient of the inaugural Patricia Zipprodt Award for Innovative Costume Design by the Fashion Institute of Technology.

       Contact Jackie Demaline at 768-8530; fax: 768-8330; e-mail Cincinnati.Com keyword: Demaline


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