Imperial Fare

Article excerpt

Court Theatre reshapes the classics in simple but effective stagings.

Now in its 51st season. Court Theatre at the University of Chicago has carved an important niche for itself within Chicago's theater industry and, increasingly, nationally as well. The decision by Court five years ago to switch from a Chicago Area Theatre (CAT) Equity contract to a LORT agreement signaled the desire of Artistic Director Charles Newell to play in the same park as other troupes devoted to the classical repertory.

Court Theatre is a vestigial name, a reference to the company's origins as a summertime, outdoor theater playing in the serene inner courtyard of a quadrangle of 189Os neogothic buildings on the Hyde Park campus of the University of Chicago. Begun in 1954 by actor and director James O'Reilly, Court Theatre performed up to three plays each summer drawn from Shakespeare, Molière, the Restoration and the 18th century with the odd Greek tragedy, Roman comedy. Brecht, Ibsen or Shaw tossed in. The company remained non-union for 20 years, peopled largely by members of the university community.

In the 1970s, under then-Artistic Director D. Nicholas Rudall, Court Theatre became an Equity company; it launched a wintertime season (eventually completely abandoning summertimes outdoors) and created a plan for a professional company and a purpose-built theater on campus. The plan was realized with the opening of the present facility in 1981, a 251seat, semi-thrust house designed by the noted architectural firm of Harry Weese & Associates. Built for a modest $ 1.7 million, the auditorium is named after leadership patrons Lester and Hope Abelson (Chicago-based Hope Abelson produced The Rainmaker, The Royal Hunt of the Sun and other shows on Broadway). Court Theatre occupies an island site adjoining the Smart Museum of Art on the north edge of the sprawling University of Chicago campus.

Once free to stage works not suitable for the outdoors, Rudall greatly stretched the definition of classical theater to encompass both contemporary classics (Miller, Williams, O'Neill, etc.) and classically derived work. Plays such as Rashomon and Angel Street edged into the repertory along with works by Pinter, Beckett, Stoppard and even Alan Ayckbourn.

Rudall's remarkable list of accomplishments at Court-he also acted, directed and translated from Greek-was achieved on a part-time basis. His real job was, and is, professor of classics at the University of Chicago. This underscores a unique feature of Court Theatre that distinguishes it from other university-based companies (think Yale Rep and American Repertory Theatre): although Court Theatre is a department of the university, it has no academic standing. The University of Chicago doesn't have a theater department, let alone a theater school or conservatory. Court Theatre staff members do not double as faculty. Students do not work at Court for academic credit. Even more germane, perhaps. Court Theatre is only minimally funded by the University. For fiscal 2006, only 6 percent of Court's $2.6 million budget comes from the school.

Naturally, there's a ready-made audience of adults and students within the greater university and Hyde Park communities, and they make up a significant percentage of Court Theatre's 3,900 subscribers from the 2004-05 season. Court also has exceptional educational programs, because it can tap into the university's scholarly pool. Nonetheless, Court must be selfsustaining, rather like university departments that must secure research grants to pay their way.

In 1994, Rudall turned over the artistic reins to Charles Newell, an outsider (not from the Chicago theater community) with bold and innovative ideas about interpreting the classics. In his 11 years at the helm, Newell not only has expanded the repertory yet again-Marivaux, Kafka, David Hirson (La Bête), Racine, Heiner Müller-but eagerly explored the controversial territories of deconstruction and minimalism by welcoming directors such as JoAnne Akalaitis and composers such as Philip Glass. …