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Coming Attraction: The Amazing Red-Hot Exploding Shakespeare Company/Chicago Theatre: Now What?/Organic Has a Hit!/Ocean on the Lake/Essence of Illinois/Making a Musical

Kenneth Branagh, the Shakespearean actor of the hour, is the designated ticketmover in this year's International Theatre Festival. If you want to see him badly enough, you'll buy a multishow package.



Coming Attraction: The Amazing Red-Hot Exploding Shakespeare Company

The third International Theatre Festival of Chicago hopes to strike pay dirt with Kenneth Branagh, the Shakespearean actor of the hour. If you haven't seen his film of Henry V or run into any of the voluminous media hype he's received, don't worry--you will become better acquainted with him shortly. In his native Great Britain Branagh is being talked up as the yuppie successor to the throne of Laurence Olivier. In Chicago he's being talked about as a major mover of tickets.

Aside from bringing great theater to Chicago, the International Theatre Festival is about selling tickets to as many attractions as possible. Each of the past two festivals--neither of which broke into the black--counted on a key attraction or two to lure potential patrons to a panoply of less familiar offerings from around the world. This third festival, scheduled for May 23-July 1, will feature 16 productions by 13 theater companies from as far afield as Lithuania, Hungary, and Israel. The hook will be Branagh's Renaissance Shakespeare Company, which made its American landfall last month in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum.

Mary Pat Sullivan, director of marketing and public relations for the Chicago festival, says, "Already we're getting calls from all over the country for Renaissance tickets." But to get first dibs on those tickets, festivalgoers will have to purchase multishow packages. Renaissance company tickets come with three of the five packages that go on sale later this month. The presence of Branagh's company in the festival will be promoted prominently in February 23 double-truck newspaper ads announcing the packages. Customers who want to buy single tickets to see Branagh's company will have to wait until mid-April.

At the Mark Taper Forum theatergoers are lining up in droves before performances of King Lear and A Midsummer Night's Dream, hoping to nab any returned tickets. Branagh's box-office potency appears critic-proof, at least in LA, where his reviews were mixed. Daily Variety said of the Renaissance Lear: "Branagh, as director, shows himself a young man willing to take on the biggest challenges, able to give 'Lear' a sense of grit and violence, but not ready to instill the experience with the multiplicity of layers that complete the drama." Los Angeles Times drama critic Sylvia Drake said of the company, "What's lacking all around is substance. Penetration. Subtlety. The productions explode. They don't dig deep and don't touch us deeply."

Chicago Theatre: Now What?

Whither the Chicago Theatre? It's a question without an answer in the wake of Toronto producer Stephen McKernan's inability to come up with the $20 million needed to buy the theater and adjoining office space. In the short term, the investor consortium that bought and renovated the space is expected to carry on operating it. More than 100 performance dates are booked through the end of 1990, and barring some unforeseen calamity, sources at the theater say, those dates will be honored. But for the facility to survive long-term, a way must be found to retire the debt on the building, and a producer must be recruited to establish a workable, coherent production plan. None-too-optimistic sources inside the city's Cultural Affairs Department acknowledge that these needs won't easily be filled. And once more, it remains to be seen whether Mayor Daley will take note of the problems and use any of his considerable powers to push for a satisfactory resolution.

Organic Has a Hit!

The Organic Theater Company, embattled and money-starved in recent years, has something it hasn't seen in a while: a hit. Do the White Thing, a comedic work penned by political satirist Aaron Freeman and financial satirist Rob Kolson, moved this week to the Organic's 325-seat main stage from its 90-seat Lab Theater, where business had been building steadily since the comedy's November opening. The move will mean a sizable boost in potential box-office revenue from $6,000 to $25,000 a week. "We'd been selling out on weekends," explains Organic executive director Richard Friedman, "and every week we were turning away more and more people." Do the White Thing is about two guys stuck on a street corner because they can't get a cab. The satire is updated regularly. Recently, for instance, material about Washington, D.C.'s beleaguered Mayor Marion Barry has been added to the show.

Ocean on the Lake

Work is proceeding on schedule for the late-October opening of the Shedd Aquarium's massive oceanarium addition. Constructed at a cost of $43 million on a landfill adjacent to the present structure, the oceanarium will increase the aquarium's space from the present 225,000 to 400,000 square feet. The centerpiece of the new facility will be a two-million-gallon pool housing Pacific white-sided dolphins and false killer whales. The oceanarium also will feature a beluga whale pool, a sea otter pool, and a penguin habitat, among other exhibits. The seawater that will fill the oceanarium's tanks will be "made," so to speak, in-house. Three million gallons of the Shedd's own brand of salt water will circulate 11 times a day through the tanks.

Essence of Illinois

In an effort to maintain the state's share of location film production, the Illinois Film Office is about to launch a new marketing campaign first from a new advertising agency, McConnaughy, Barocci and Brown. The campaign, a series of black-and-white print ads, postcards, and direct-mail pieces, will try to capture what Film Office director Suzy Kellett calls the "essence of the state." The first ad spotlights blues musician Sunnyland Slim with a single line of copy drawn from Howlin' Wolf's song "Poor Boy": "I've got so many friends in Chicago, place just can't do me no harm."

Making a Musical

Michael Frazier, owner of the Halsted Theatre Centre, is developing a new musical with New York-based producers Joe Tandet and Marv Neelon. Called Hearts Desire, it consists of four stories about relationships at different stages in life. The book was written by Chicago short-story author Stuart Dybek, San Francisco-based writer Armistead Maupin, Texan Beverly Lawrey, and another writer who isn't likely to be involved in future versions of the piece. Stage and film musical consultant Glen Roven has written what Frazier calls a "very contemporary, tuneful score." Frazier plans to give the script to Remains Theater's Larry Sloan to see if the company might want to get involved in developing the work. Actors Peter Gallagher and Bernadette Peters also may be involved with a future production.

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