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Back Door Man

How the Apollo's Rob Kolson lucked into "The Vagina Monologues."

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January is traditionally a slow time of year for theater, but business is booming at the Apollo, where The Vagina Monologues has become "the best-selling show" in Rob Kolson's five years of running the 450-seat venue. The play, a collection of stories based on interviews with women, has pulled in a half million dollars in ticket sales since it reopened on November 29. Kolson has been feeling so flush he speculated the show would take in another $50,000 on the day after New Year's.

His good fortune comes as a bit of a surprise, because last year at this time The Vagina Monologues wasn't even on his radar. "Honestly," he says with a laugh, "it was not my first choice."

The Apollo mostly hosts touring productions or remountings of shows that have proved popular in other cities. Last year at this time Kolson had his biggest hit to date with Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!, a musical revue of Allan Sherman songs that ran for ten months. Kolson was planning to slate one of two shows for the fall--Daley to Daley, a new work by Second City writer Joe Keefe, and Mom's the Word, a Canadian play about motherhood.

"I told Mom's the Word that they were my second choice," says Kolson, who had already signed a contingency agreement with the producers of Daley to Daley. "I was waiting because I had made a commitment and there was just no way I could back out on that."

As a result he got left out in the cold when he learned Daley to Daley would not be ready in time. By then Mom's the Word had made a deal with the Royal George Theatre Center (where it closed last week), and the Apollo was faced with the prospect of being dark in September, at the beginning of a new theater season. "I had to find something else to fill my theater."

Then Kolson got lucky. New York producer David Stone was looking to bring The Vagina Monologues to Chicago, with the play's author, Eve Ensler, as featured performer. The work's demands are minimal--a bare stage, lighting, and cue cards (actors are not required to learn lines)--and the Apollo fit the bill. "The show was not going to go into a 2,000-seat venue," says Stone. "Anything larger than the Apollo would be a waste."

Ensler's six-week run turned out to be a huge success. "I was shocked that it did as well as it did," says Kelly Leonard, executive director of the Second City. "It's a touring attraction, and it has the word vagina in it. I knew that everyone involved was concerned with the subject matter." He thinks the show's initial success was helped in part by the producers having access to the Goodman Theatre's mailing list. Goodman customers were offered special discounts during the play's first two weeks.

But Kolson says good reviews were backed up by positive word of mouth. "The last two weeks of Ensler's performance completely sold out, and that was from the word of mouth. If the show sucks, you'll die in the last three weeks, no matter whose mailing list you use."

Kolson picked up The Vagina Monologues' Chicago rights, but all casting still had to go through Stone and Ensler. Productions in New York and Los Angeles have gotten a lot of press by casting stars such as Brooke Shields and Calista Flockhart, and that may have heightened expectations here. But Rosie Perez backed out of a tentatively scheduled appearance before the holidays, and nothing has come of Variety's report that Shields would be offered a spot in the lineup early this year. All gossip fizzled out as the annual deep freeze settled in. Kolson concedes, "It's been difficult to get stars to come here with the weather being the way it is." Last month's casting of local actresses Rose Abdoo, Rondi Reed, and Leila Kenzle proved audiences will come without the big names. The current rendition--featuring Abdoo, Amy Morton, and Susan Messing under Kolson's direction--has the actresses onstage at the same time, trading parts.

Before taking over the Apollo, Kolson spent four years teaching economics at the University of Chicago. In 1995 he came to the Lincoln Avenue theater to stage Gentlemen Prefer Bonds, the follow-up to Do The White Thing, his long-running collaboration with Aaron Freeman. The Apollo's owners were thinking about converting the theater to condominiums, but Kolson convinced them to rent it to him.

With The Vagina Monologues settling in for what he hopes will be the long haul, Kolson can now turn his attention to other business. He continues to do "stand-up comedy about finance" for corporate functions, and he may soon climb back onstage himself. "Northlight Theatre called and they're interested in Aaron and I doing Do the White Thing again. We're kind of thinking about it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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