George F. Walker is best known for his swash-buckling "Zastrozzi," but the sardonic energy of this Canadian playwright is equally typified by his one-acts. Opening Friday, Dec. 28, in a Chicago premiere by Ulysses Theatre Company, two offerings —"Adult Entertainment" and "Criminal Genius" — represent Walker's ambitious six-play "Suburban Motel" cycle (which Walker is adapting as a televison series). The one-acts share the same blandly neutral setting, a run-down motel where the customers seem as random as the road. "Adult Entertainment" follows two cops on a downward spiral of corruption, drunkenness, violence and betrayal. Equally bottom-feeding, "Criminal Genius" introduces us to a group of petty criminals whose best-laid plans for burning down a local restaurant go horribly awry. As they lurch from hilarity to heartbreak, these shocking slices of motel life question concepts of morality, security and love. Directing the duo is Bosnian-born Zeljko Djukic, a former teacher at Belgrade's Drama Art School, who makes his Chicago directorial debut.

OTHER OPENINGS

"SOMEBODY LOVES YOU, MR. HATCH": Opening Saturday, Dec. 29, as part of the theater's KidSeries in a staging by Shole Milos, this world premiere adaptation of Eileen Spinelli's children's classic is adapted by Lifeline ensemble member Frances Limoncelli with music by George Howe. Mired in a small town, Mr. Hatch has thought of himself as plain and unexciting. Then a postman delivers a mysterious package tied up in a big bow. "Somebody loves you," the note says. Mr. Hatch wonders, "Who could somebody be?" Venturing out to investigate the mystery, the former recluse begins to open himself to others and the world responds in return. Limoncelli is collaborating on her second adaptation for Lifeline's KidSeries after "The Emperor's Groovy New Clothes." Howe's songs have been performed at the Miss Teen Pageant and in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade; he was musical director for Second City's "Hamlet! The Musical" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

LOOKING BACK

This week, the slowest of the year for theater openings, offers a chance to look back over a busy year. With so many Chicago shows opening back to back or on top of each other, it's hard to find a pattern. Sometimes it takes an outside event, like the horror of Sept. 11, to put things in perspective. Theater has been called life's dress rehearsal. Given this, it would be strange to impossible if the plays we saw this year hadn't prepared us, however unintentionally, to confront the worst as well as best in our world.

By that standard, one show stood out as an exemplar of endurance. Produced at the Ruth Page Theater in May, it was Lookingglass Theatre Company's "Hard Times," an adaptation of the Charles Dickens' novel, whose title now seemed prophetic. Adaptor-director Heidi Stillman's definitive staging depicted a joyless world of Victorian puritanism where flowers were forbidden to appear on wallpaper (because that's not where they really grow). Deadly pragmatic, this sour world was controlled by schoolmaster Gradgrind and the pompous industrialist Mr. Bounderby; they stifled the imagination and even moral will of their students and workers. But Dickens introduces the Jupes' circus troupe, zany outsiders who provide a delightful alternative to this grim and literal mindset. By the end a brother and sister are able to escape the terrible prudery and pettiness of Coketown.

Apart from the excellence of everything connected with this adaptation, it served as an unintentional argument for theater itself. Never more so than in terrorist-tormented times, our power to imagine alternatives seems invaluable. Our capacity to wonder, whether about an indecisive Danish prince, a fiddler on a roof, a music man, an amazing technicolor dreamcoat, or two Broadway producers hoping for a flop, confirms our curiosity about the world around us.