Frank Maugeri had been with Redmoon Theater for 23 years when it collapsed in December 2015. He'd worked his way up from volunteer to producing artistic director at the Chicago-based company, known for its inventive urban spectacles performed everywhere from neighborhood streets to the White House and involving everything from an otherworldly river procession to a fantasia built around a nonexistent Norwegian pop star. And he most definitely loved it. Redmoon, the 49-year-old Maugeri told me during a recent phone interview, "fit my spiritual nature, it fit my emotions, it fit my community-galvanizing impulses, and it fit my need and desire to create ritual. Losing that felt, at the time, massive."
The cause of Redmoon's death appears to have been a classic case of overextension. The theater had always gone big, but in its final year it was going bigger still, moving to new digs in a $30,000-a-month Pilsen industrial space and premiering an ambitious waterborne spectacle, the Great Chicago Fire Festival, with a high-profile imprimatur from the city. In the end, the fire literally fizzled in front of thousands of onlookers and the owner of the industrial space sued for two months' unpaid rent. "We made a bet on that building," Maugeri says, "and we made a bet on the festival, and both of those did not turn out in our favor. That's what took us down."
Whatever the cause, the result was devastating to Maugeri. "It was incredibly sad to me," he says. "I was very depressed and distressed, and the loss of that magic—or what I feared was the loss of magic—sat on my heart in a heavy, frightening way."
It got so bad for him that a friend staged an informal intervention. As Maugeri remembers it, "He was very angry because for the first few months I was constantly begging for help, like, 'Oh my God, what's gonna happen?' . . . And he said, 'Hey, you know what? You don't know the difference between good luck and bad luck. This may be the best thing that ever happened to you.'"
Maugeri resisted that thought at first. But as even a brief conversation with him makes abundantly clear, he's a constitutional optimist with a near-mystical confidence in everyone's ability to access and address the universe. About a month into his mourning he was offered a job as community programs artistic director for the Chicago Children's Theatre, and accepted it in part, he says, because the theater was moving into a renovated police station: "Take an old police station and transform it into a site of hope," he says, "it's perfectly aligned with who I am as a person on this planet."
Now Maugeri is getting back into the spectacle business, in a way. His new nonprofit, Cabinet of Curiosity Events, is designed to create original rites and ceremonies, both for clients who want, say, a new kind of bar mitzvah ("That's exactly the kind of thing I would totally leap at!") and to express his own aesthetic vision—not to mention his fierce sense of the cosmic. "I'm a spiritual person," says Maugeri, a Chicago-born Catholic who saw his first play when he was 21 (Hystopolis Puppet Theater's The Adding Machine) and attributes his sense of the theatrical to attending mass. "I practice prayer. I practice meditation. . . . I think the Cabinet is the way that I'm trying to figure out how to turn that into an artistic experience for others.
"If anyone thinks I'm bringing Redmoon back, they're wrong," he warns. "Redmoon got big and its ambitions were always very large, and my thing with the Cabinet, partly, is . . . to create really intimate experiences that are provocative, important, meaningful, and relevant."
By the time you read this you'll have already missed the Cabinet's debut public event, Surprise! Death Is Not the End, scheduled for Sunday, September 10, at Links Hall. Created with the help of frequent collaborator Seth Bockley, it's meant to be "a funeral for old ideas"—very much including Maugeri's mourning for Redmoon—"and a birthday party for a new way of living." Death took on a more complex set of meanings on July 21, when Maugeri suffered the first of a pair of grand mal seizures (the kind associated with epilepsy) that put him in the hospital for a total of 20 days. The source of the seizures isn't known as of this writing, but Maugeri has already inserted them into his ongoing conversation with divinity: Bockley, he told me, "is writing a gratitude song that the audience gets to sing with a cast member . . . to kind of celebrate themselves and one another and recognize out loud how amazing their life is."
The next Cabinet extravaganza after that will be Illumination, a new take on Redmoon's old Boneshaker Halloween fetes. Maugeri half-jokingly calls his ideas for it "quite Redmoony—but more so, they're Maugeri-oony . . . .
"I'm working with a lot of fractured-glass sculpture, building a giant disco ball that a person can sit inside of. Right now it's the shape of a moon, oddly enough, with this moon character who lives inside its belly." Among the other attractions he has in mind: "ritual creatures" on stilts, swathed in light-shifting plastic and crowned with car lights; a "futuristic elotes cart" for dispensing s'mores; aerialists wearing refractive costumes; and "a team of mobile chandelier carriers" with generator backpacks, who "can go to different spaces in the party and create moments of intimacy for one or two people."
Ironically, Illumination will take place at Moonlight Studios, a private event space at 1446 W. Kinzie—i.e., the same place Redmoon occupied before the disastrous move to Pilsen. Proceeds will benefit research into a rare genetic condition called retinal vasculopathy with cerebral leukodystrophy (RVCL), whose symptoms, according to the U.S. government's Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center "may include loss of vision, mini-strokes, and dementia" as well as death within a decade of its onset.
Meanwhile, Maugeri has his first commission to develop a new family ceremony: a baby naming, or, as he puts it, "a ritual of inviting this child into the world," adding, "I'm trying to figure out how I can carve out what is kind of a new medium. For me, anyway. I'm figuring out a little bit how to get there, and I think it's one brick at a time." v