In 1997, the Shakespeare Repertory announced it would move to Navy Pier, taking up residence in a $22 million complex, to be dubbed the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, which would open two years later. The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority had agreed to come up with $12 million; Shakespeare Repertory set about raising the remaining $10 million.
To many, this looked liked rank folly.
Shakespeare Repertory was a relatively small operation, only 10 years old; it had begun, in classic ragtag Chicago style in 1986, on the roof of the Red Lion Pub in Lincoln Park. At that juncture, Barbara Gaines' company not only lacked much of a national (let alone international) reputation, but it was ensconced at the Ruth Page Theater, supported mostly by an older, well-heeled crowd of Gold Coast locals whom, it seemed, were unlikely to take to the crowded, touristy, carnival atmosphere of Navy Pier.
If Navy Pier and Shakespeare Repertory did not seem an obvious match, the same could have been said of Chicago and Shakespeare. When Tyrone Guthrie knocked on doors here in 1950, suggesting the establishment of a classically oriented theater, he was told by city movers and shakers to buzz off, there being no perceivable point.
Guthrie buzzed off to Minneapolis and then Stratford, Ontario, creating a world-class theater that draws from Chicago, instead of to it. And Shakespeare Repertory, which changed its name to Chicago Shakespeare in honor of its new home, ignored those who argued that no one was going to eat a burger, take a cruise and then head inside for three hours of "King Lear." That was certainly a reasonable presumption; in general, people still don't. But Gaines and the theater's gifted executive director, Criss Henderson, were smart enough to see that, whatever the drawbacks of Navy Pier, they'd just been handed $12 million from a quasi-governmental body, a chance unlikely ever to come their way again. They knew what they needed and they could see they were needed in return.
Now, as Chicago Shakespeare Theater celebrates its 25th anniversary and, with the opening of "Sunday in the Park With George" on Oct. 3, begins its 26th season of work, it has become clear that Navy Pier changed Shakespeare Repertory just enough for it to thrive and, just as crucially, the former Shakespeare Repertory has changed Navy Pier. And, when one turns to the future, it's equally clear that Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Navy Pier are now inextricably linked.
The generally lowbrow surroundings of Navy Pier to date has only made Chicago Shakespeare Theater look classier. Henderson negotiated smartly with the pier bosses and snagged a 40 percent parking discount, which prevents patrons from feeling gouged. Yet more importantly, he has created an oasis of high-quality customer service inside the theater's door. Outside, customers take what they get from the array of vendors. But inside, well-dressed young people wearing headsets hold doors, dispense cocktails, validate parking, massage egos and generally protect the art. Those long-time Gold Coast customers have seen no diminishment in their experience. And even though Chicago Shakespeare did not get the much larger and more practical space it first wanted — back in 1997, there were cries of horror at the notion of a towering theater space taller than the Ferris wheel — it did get an Apollonian space with the kind of picture windows and city views that can charm any visiting English Shakespearean used to tatty West End dressing rooms.
And yet, the rough and tumble of the pier, a kind of concrete boardwalk empire, alleviates the charges of elitism.
Moreover, the Navy Pier location has given Chicago Shakespeare a walk-up crowd for one kind of programming — its family shows, which it has developed considerably.
Take this summer's production of a short version of "Disney's Beauty and the Beast." As directed by Rachel Rockwell and performed by top-tier, Equity-affiliated Chicago talent, the show blew away any reasonable expectations of a family out for a day out on the pier. Such a production would be almost impossible to stage under New York cost structures, and most other cities do not have this level of homegrown talent willing and able to do matinees only. Other Chicago theaters do not have access to such an audience. And so on the crowded afternoons this summer, when youthful Chicagoans and tourists could escape into the cool elegance of the Courtyard Theater, "Beauty and the Beast" was a sublime and unique match of company and place.
Henderson also has stepped up to fill what he rightly saw as a void: the presenting of international companies to Chicago audiences. With the demise of Performing Arts Chicago, Chicago lacked a large-scale presenter of international works — or, at least, one willing to bring in a show without wanting to put it in a festival or find a connection to its own work. To its credit, Chicago Shakespeare's presenting activities have been happily devoid of its own artistic ego. And thus relationships have been formed with the Druid Theatre of Ireland, the National Theatre of Scotland, the Maly Theatre of St. Petersburg and many others. Without Chicago Shakespeare, Chicago would not have seen this work. It has been a gift to the city, and it has slowly forged relationships that have allowed Chicago Shakespeare to take some of its own work abroad.
But what of that work, here in town?
When stacked up against other classical directors, Gaines is an avowed American populist, known for clarity, heart and accessibility, all of which work nicely on the pier. But despite a perception in some circles, her work is hardly milquetoast. Take, for example, Gaines' 2006 production of both parts of "Henry IV" (which took rather longer than a ride on the Ferris wheel). At one moment in those typically triumphalist dramas, there is a battle between Prince Hal and his rival Hotspur. Hal, who becomes Henry V, wins. In Gaines' production, Hotspur had Hal pinned to the floor but lets him go and hands Hal back his sword, only to later be killed by the man who showed none of the same forgiveness. To some minds, such a narrative liberty is intrusive heresy.
But Gaines' audience is aware of her intense dislike of that entitled young man Hal, as well as used to textual modification. She has gotten away with so much experimentation so easily, frankly, because Gaines always wears her love of Shakespeare on her sleeve and never messes with the text for merely pretentious purposes.
In 2010, in one of Chicago Shakespeare's biggest disasters, the controversy-courting contemporary playwright Neil LaBute provided a prologue (involving a fraught lesbian love affair) and interpolations for "The Taming of the Shrew." In 2008, Gaines' more successful production of "The Comedy of Errors" including hilarious extra material from Ron West, of Second City fame. Gaines' 2005 production of "The Merchant of Venice" was notable for its casting of Mike Nussbaum in the main role, but also for its emotional approach to, arguably, one of Shakespeare's coldest plays.
How one felt about that show — a heartfelt, unsubtle, ensemble-based Gaines production — typified better than most the variety of opinions about Gaines' work. She works better with some actors than others; Nussbaum is her muse.
Two more things are worth adding. Gaines has been getting better and better as the years have gone by. And she has had to deal with the city that spurned Guthrie. In the classical arena, Chicago needed not so much an auteur, maximalist, trans-Atlantic director but a director who would constantly want to remind us of the emotional core of a dude many thought too dry for this town.
Making a Chicago case for Shakespeare has been Gaines' signature achievement these 25 years. Her 2009 production of "Macbeth," for example, was a restless show full of sexual high jinks (Lady M half-naked in a bathtub) and high-tech tricks. It had moments of insecurity. But it wasn't afraid to link Malcolm and Barack Obama, at the very moment of the latter's election to president. This wasn't the subtlest "Macbeth" you ever saw. But it knew the city of its birth — which wasn't in Scotland.
Alongside Gaines' mostly Shakespearean work, the theater has effectively showcased the Chicago-based director Gary Griffin, whose national career dates to the acclaim that greeted his remarkable 2001 production of "Pacific Overtures" and whose production, 10 years later, of Stephen Sondheim's "Follies" was, without question, this theater's greatest single artistic achievement to date.
So what now?
Chicago Shakespeare needs another Navy Pier theater (and Navy Pier needs Chicago Shakespeare more than ever), not least so it can expand its presenting mission and continue to balance out the carnival and hamburgers of a pier that delivers so many potential customers to its doors. In turn, the pier can take a cue from the Chicago Shakespeare's classy operation.
If Henderson's achievements in customer service have been formidable, he has been less successful in creating genuine public space; despite its locale, the theater has no bookstore, no public bar (the plans for a pub never worked out), no hang-out space, no exhibition space, no casual music venue, nothing to draw in the non-theater goer. That needs correcting. This new theater will need to house shows that tour to proscenium venues, a configuration that is possible, but never satisfactory, in the current Courtyard space. This should be a top priority.
Among actors, Chicago Shakespeare is not known as an institution that pays the most (and pay scales all over town are too meager), or that is the most open to projects from outsiders. Those relationships needs attention. The theater could do a better job of building its own stars from its loyal ensemble. There is nothing inherently wrong with its use of out-of-town Shakespearean stars like Ben Carlson or Derrick Lee Weeden, but in numerous shows, those actors have seemed to stand apart rather than function as part of the whole.
Chicago Shakespeare recently was handed the balance of the resources of the disbanding Theatre Building Chicago (which sold its building), with the call to use the money for the development of new musicals, under creative producer Rick Boynton. There's a way to go there and, now, more resources: Chicago Shakespeare has had some genuine successes in the family-musical arena, but has yet to develop a full-blown musical property with either adult bite or clear Broadway prospects. It is time to be open to a broader swath of directors, and to collaborate with commercial producers for the benefit of a city that prides itself on the creation of new, exportable works.
But, all that said, no Chicago theater has worked harder to make itself available to all the citizens of its home city. No Chicago theater seems to care more about its audience. No Chicago theater brings more of the theater world to Chicago, even if it's really still just a drop in the lake. And no Chicago theater has given Shakespeare so sweet a home.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times