Page to Stage Chicago's In-Your-Face Theater Is Getting Soft as Books Are Turned into Plays

By Helbig, Jack | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), March 7, 1997 | Go to article overview

Page to Stage Chicago's In-Your-Face Theater Is Getting Soft as Books Are Turned into Plays


Helbig, Jack, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Jack Helbig Daily Herald Correspondent

In theater circles, Chicago is best known for its gutsy, no-holds-barred, hyper realistic productions. Tough, intense, athletic shows full of "deep dish" acting helped put the Steppenwolf Theatre on the map and launch the careers of company members, including John Malkovich, Gary Sinise and Laurie Metcalf.

But these days, such Chicago-style shows are being replaced by a more genteel kind of theater - the literary adaptation.

Plays based on books, often adapted by the person directing the show, have all but pushed out the drink-a-real-beer-on-stage-and-smash-it-against-the-wall kind of theater that made Chicago famous.

Just look at this month's "American Theater" magazine. There on the cover, in full color, you will see a photograph from Chicago writer-director Mary Zimmerman's "Journey to the West."

Adapted from a classic Chinese novel, "Journey to the West" premiered two years ago at the Goodman and has since completed successful runs in Boston and Berkeley.

Zimmerman's whole career has been based on turning books into plays.

Her first big hit was the marvelous, circuslike retelling of "The Thousand and One Arabian Nights" that she did with Lookingglass Theater in 1992.

But Zimmerman is not alone. Already this year there has been one noteworthy show based on a novel - the Court Theater's "Carmen," adapted from the same book that inspired the famous opera. And there are lots more on the way.

In the next few months you can see stage versions of:

- Donald Barthelme's "The King,"

- Ben Hecht's "1,001 Afternoons in Chicago,"

- James Finney Boylan's "The Planets,"

- Edna Ferber's "Glamour,"

- the first part of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy,

- "Babette's Feast," by Isak Dinesen, and

- an evening of Beat poetry and prose by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs.

Why this sudden glut of stage adaptations?

Mark Richard, artistic director of The City Lit Theater Company, enjoys the challenge.

"I love grappling with literature," he said, "but I wouldn't begin to sit down at a blank page and try and write my own play."

Give Richard a work to adapt, however, and he's in heaven.

Richard adapted City Lit's very popular stage version of P. G. Wodehouse's "Thank You, Jeeves" (still running at the Ivanhoe Theatre), and he is the man responsible for their new show, "The King," based on Barthelme's modern, comic retelling of the story of King Arthur and the knights of the round table.

Richard didn't begin as an adaptor of literature.

"I was just a plain, old, vanilla theater major in college," he said. "I just wanted to grow up and become a Shakespearean actor."

But after knocking around the theater scene for a while, acting in shows here and there, Richard fell in with City Lit Theater, a company dedicated exclusively to making plays out of books. Founded in 1980, City Lit did adaptations before adaptation was cool.

A late replacement in City Lit's production of "A Tale of Two Cities," Richard became entranced by the possibilities of turning literature into theater. He became friends with the show's director, Arnold Aprill, then the company's artistic director, "and Arnie opened the door for me," Richard recalled.

A year later he was creating stage versions of short stories by Edith Wharton, and he's never looked back.

"People are always excited by the prospect of working with material they have never seen before," said professor Paul Edwards of Northwestern University.

Edwards should know. He has been excited by theater adaptations ever since he studied with professor Robert Breen as an undergraduate at Northwestern. Like Richard, Edwards began by wanting to be an actor, and like Richard, Edwards was soon won over by the idea of literary adaptations.

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