Open your minds, calendars for the fall theater season

"The Merchant of Venice" at Chicago Shakespeare, starring the indefatigable Mike Nussbaum as Shylock. The circus-oriented "Hephaestus" at Lookingglass. The classic musical "Gypsy" at Porchlight. "Three by Friel" at the never-say-die Irish Repertory. And that's just this weekend's major openings. Next weekend is even busier.

When the fall season arrives in the Chicago theater, it hits hard and fast.

On Sunday in Arts & Entertainment, we'll preview the fall's most anticipated shows. But what's going to happen between now and next summer within Chicago's ever-vibrant theater community? Some predictions and a wish list.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company. To mark its 30th anniversary season, Steppenwolf had the nerve (or maybe the foolhardiness) to eschew the usual greatest-hits, cash-generating nostalgia and commit to an entire season of risky new work, mostly by playwrights without a household name. It's going to be a test of its loyal subscriber base--the celebrity-driven likes of "Frankie and Johnny" or "Cuckoo's Nest" are absent this year. But then isn't risky new fare why one subscribes to Steppenwolf? Or is that why one used to subscribe? This year will tell.

Lookingglass Theater Company. By making single tickets very hard to get for some shows this season (due to limited capacity, for mainly artistic reasons), Lookingglass has thrown its weight behind building its subscribers. Fine. But under new managing director Rachel Kraft, Lookingglass also has to build its presence on Michigan Avenue and its relationship with the hordes who walk past its front door, yet barely know it's there.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater. If executive director Criss Henderson has his way, Chicago Shakes will announce plans next year for a new, additional theater on Navy Pier--a venue ideal for family and musical programming. And why not? Henderson has proved a shrewd presenter of high-end touring fare as well as a producer of the Bard. Who could doubt his capacity to fill another theater? And who needs Skyline Stage anymore?

Drury Lane Water Tower. This likeable new downtown theater has had a mixed start--it's struggling to combine its owner's traditional suburban-subscription way of doing business with the different demands of the complex Mag-Mile crowd. Longer rehearsal time to increase quality would be a useful improvement. And with a lot of commercial producers eyeing this space as a possible home for sit-down Chicago productions of Broadway hits, owner Tony De Santis has a lot on his very agile mind. But this theater could do many different things at different times. Given the location, it needs a flexible approach.

Goodman Theatre. This year's season is, perhaps, less elevated in national profile than recent years. That's no bad thing. We're ready to see more Chicago actors play in the city's prime theatrical real estate and we could use more shows by Chicago directors who deserve a shot at the big dance. But we still miss the kind of new midsize plays--and fine local productions--that used to show up routinely in the old Goodman studio. The upcoming David Mamet fete--the Goodman typically does festivals very well--bodes well for the new year. (The festival kicks off in March 2006 and lasts into April.) But still, the Goodman could be doing more outside its mainstage.

Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. Not so long ago, this suburban theatrical colossus did lots of new musicals. In 2006, they've finally stuck one such title on the slate, "Once Upon a Time in New Jersey," a comedy by Stephen Weiner and Susan DiLallo. That's not enough. The loyal audience there would enjoy seeing shows--decent shows--on their way to Broadway, as well as classic titles reappearing 40 or 50 years hence. "Brigadoon"? How about more that's fresh and new?

Northlight Theatre. Taking seasons as a whole, Northlight probably had the most successful 2004-5 of any theater in the Chicago area. Artistic director B. J. Jones still frets over the right mix for his Skokie audience, but last year's banner year shows that a mix of provocation and quality pays unexpected dividends. The ever-busier North Shore Center for the Arts is one of the big recent arts success stories in this area. Northlight will probably never get the respect its downtown cousins enjoy, but we'll settle for another season of top-drawer work by local artists.

Broadway in Chicago. Job one is come up with a new show for the LaSalle Bank Theatre (formally the Shubert Theatre) opening--lest those generous bankers don't get a lot of bang for their naming rights. Job two is to find the next "Wicked." Job three is to stop those nervous New Yorkers from canceling their out-of-town tryouts and making us feel like second-class citizens, which we don't like. But wait. "Wicked" is going gangbusters. That's a job well done.

And the rest of the wishful thinking? How about the renovation of the theaters inside the former Fine Arts Building? They're of a needed size and sport a stellar location. How about the University of Chicago building its Court Theatre a new home and a potential cultural anchor for Hyde Park? And how about someone coming up with the cash to build new theaters for two important and proven itinerant troupes, Congo Square Theatre and the House Theatre? Fall is always a good time for dreams. And plans.


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