Exploring the Great Unknown; Shakespeare in Doubt; Keeping It Old; Legal Dept. | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

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Exploring the Great Unknown; Shakespeare in Doubt; Keeping It Old; Legal Dept.

Are first-time playwright penny Penniston and her producer husband Jeremy Wechsler ready to take their hot little play into the big time?


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Exploring the Great Unknown

First-time playwright Penny Penniston and producer-director Jeremy Wechsler are about to learn whether Penniston's romantic comedy Now Then Again will expand to fill a vacuum. The play, about two physicists finding love at Fermilab, premiered February 17 at Bailiwick Repertory's 75-seat studio theater. A slew of favorable reviews and strong word of mouth have helped to sell out every performance, and about halfway through the run the husband-wife team began to consider turning the nonprofit show into a commercial production. The subscription-based Bailiwick already had another play scheduled to open in its studio, and Wechsler soon discovered that most of the city's small theaters were booked a year or more in advance. He approached Ivanhoe Theater owner Doug Bragan about renting one of its tiny studios, but they were already occupied by long-running productions. Instead Bragan suggested that Wechsler consider the 500-seat main stage, which had been dark since early January; Now Then Again begins an open run there this weekend.

A former advertising copywriter, Penniston had been trying without much success to write a salable screenplay when her husband, a graduate of Northwestern University's theater program, urged her to try a play. Eventually she took one of her screenplays and revised it as Now Then Again. A throwback to the sort of witty, literate relationship comedies common on Broadway in the 30s and 40s, the play also allowed Penniston to introduce some high-tech elements. "I wanted to put the play in a physics lab because physics has always seemed like such a romantic subject to me," she explains. Last fall Wechsler brought the script to Bailiwick artistic director David Zak, who wasted no time slotting the show into the theater's 1999 season. The process moved so quickly that Wechsler and Penniston wound up workshopping and revising the play even as it was being rehearsed.

A computer consultant for Playboy Enterprises, Wechsler hasn't produced a play since he worked for Magellan Theatre Company, a small nonprofit with an annual budget of about $60,000 that shut down in 1994. And he's keenly aware that, despite the strong buzz, filling a 500-seat theater every night with a work by an unknown playwright will be a formidable challenge. But Bragan, anxious to reopen a room that had been dark too long, offered to come in as coproducer and give him a deal on the theater rental. Over the past couple weeks Wechsler has raised more than $30,000 from friends, business contacts, and two corporations, which he hopes will underwrite a marketing and advertising campaign for the first three or four weeks of the run. Tickets are $20 and $22, compared to $18 to $20 for the Bailiwick production: he's betting that affordable tickets will encourage people to sample the show--particularly younger patrons who might otherwise be heading for the new Landmark Theatres multiplex opening just down the street from the Ivanhoe. And it can't hurt that employees at Fermilab, out in Batavia, are coming in droves. For now, he and his wife are counting on the tendency of a moving object to remain in motion.

Shakespeare in Doubt

When Chicago Shakespeare Theater inaugurated its elegant and spacious new home on Navy Pier last fall, artistic director Barbara Gaines and others in the company talked big about focusing on the Bard. But the difficulty of selling Elizabethan drama to the fun seekers who crowd the pier every summer may force the company to import more mainstream fare: sources say it's considering a transfer of Marriott Theatre's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to its main stage for July and August. Alida Szabo, a spokesperson for Chicago Shakespeare, would not confirm any bookings after the closing of All's Well That Ends Well in June. "We have no contracts for any other productions yet," she says, "and we haven't ironed out all the details of our next season." Meanwhile the studio theater has been vacant since its first production, Shakespeare's R&J, closed in December. Executive director Criss Henderson says the company wanted to concentrate on its main-stage productions during the inaugural season; the studio may not see a new show until this fall.

Keeping It Old

Thirty years after it premiered in Berkeley, the seminal rock ballet Trinity will return to the Joffrey Ballet on March 23, during the company's annual spring engagement at the Auditorium Theatre. Created by artistic director Gerald Arpino in response to the antiwar movement, Trinity hasn't been performed by the Joffrey for more than a decade, and it's become something of a period piece. Artistic administrator Harriet Ross describes it as "a tribute to the empowerment of youth," but for Joffrey dancer Patrick Simonello, who wasn't even born when the ballet made its debut, Trinity is "an important piece of history."

For this latest revival Arpino and his staff are trying to maintain the ballet's period feel. "Much of the music, particularly in the first and third movements of the ballet, was originally improvised rock music," explains Ross. But over the years the improvisations lost the flavor of Alan Raph and Lee Holdridge's score. "The music was sounding more and more percussive as rock music evolved through the 70s and 80s and new rock bands were brought in to play the music." To replicate the sound of 1970, Raph recently reannotated the entire score.

Legal Dept.

Nearly two months ago the League of Chicago Theatres submitted to the Cook County state's attorney evidence of an alleged embezzlement of at least $200,000. But according to state's attorney spokesperson Bob Benjamin, charges against anyone have yet to be filed. The unit that handles violent felonies can make a determination on most cases within 48 hours after evidence is submitted by police, says Benjamin, but financial crimes typically take longer because they involve large amounts of paperwork. The office sometimes conducts its own investigation as well before deciding whether it has a case. Benjamin would not comment on whether charges in the league scandal are expected soon.

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

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