In search of a happier ending | On Culture | Chicago Reader

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In search of a happier ending

The founders and longtime heart of Raven Theatre have been wiped from its history.

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Raven Theatre's Cold Town/Hotline, the Chicago holiday play it commissioned from writer and director Eli Newell, features one extraordinary kid actor—fifth-grader Jonah Kaufman—and the mostly happy ending requisite for family-friendly Christmas-season shows.

It's about a clutch of volunteers, each with their personal baggage, who man the Yule Connection—a hotline for folks suffering from the anxiety and depression that's become a staple of the holiday. Along the way, the volunteers' own issues get resolved.

I'd like to say it's playing in the Raven's spacious Menendian-Montemurro main-stage theater, but there is no Menendian-Montemurro stage at Raven. And you'll search the theater's spiffed-up lobby in vain for even a plaque or photo of the husband-and-wife team that built this neighborhood institution. No mention of them in its program books or on its website either. In a whitewashing that brings—what? Stalinist Russia?—to mind, Raven has erased the couple who founded, ran, and were synonymous with it for 35 of its nearly 37 years.

Here's how the history reads on the website (note the telltale passive construction): "Raven Theatre was founded in March 1983. It was itinerant until August 1985, when it moved into a storefront in the Rogers Park neighborhood. Raven moved to its permanent home at the corner of Clark & Granville, in Edgewater, in November 2002. A building that was once a grocery store now boasts two stages . . . "

Ah, yes. The grocery store.

There were still grocery carts on the linoleum floor when I interviewed Michael Menendian in this space in January 2001. As anyone who's paid any attention to the local theater scene for more than a couple of years (or just knocked around Edgewater or Rogers Park for that long) is likely to know, it was Menendian—a director who learned his trade by studying with Chicago theater legends Dennis Začek, Del Close, and Paul Sills—and actor JoAnn Montemurro, who, with a small company of colleagues, created Raven, back in '83. They scraped it together—literally with their own hands—and grew it, right along with their daughter, Sophia, who toddled across that first stage (which audience members also had to cross to get to the restroom), and eventually participated as a thespian herself. And it was JoAnn and Mike (still working his day job with the city) who, after the theater lost its first home, moved Raven to this location, taking on a major mortgage and turning it into a two-stage center, a significant link in the city's off-Loop theater scene. They brought professional theater to the neighborhood, mounting mostly revivals of American classics as well as local premieres, until they were summarily "retired" from their positions as co-artistic directors two years ago.

Raven's lobby walls used to display photographs of their productions, going back decades. No more. When I called the theater to ask what happened, I was directed to Stephen Johnson, who is now both general manager and the treasurer of Raven's board of directors. He's been on the board since 2013, and has been a generous donor to the theater since then.

Johnson told me the erasure was done according to Menendian and Montemurro's wishes. Their departure, he said "was not pleasant, and they asked that they be removed from anything having to do with the theater." He said they weren't ready to leave, but the board was ready to see them go, because "the direction the theater had been moving in was not sustainable. . . . The financial results were not what we wanted them to be."

"They indicated that they didn't want to be associated with the theater any longer after they had departed, so we did that," Johnson explained. When I asked if they said they wanted to be excised from its history, he said, "We interpreted it in that fashion."

But Menendian told me, "That's not really true. They wanted to celebrate us [at a gala, etc]. And we did not want to be celebrated, given the acrimonious terms under which we left. But it had nothing to do with saying 'please eliminate our names from the history of Raven.' Obviously I wouldn't spend 35 years of my life building it up from scratch, just to be completely forgotten. I did not expect that they would wipe the slate clean. That never was presented to me."

Menendian said he's "not dwelling on it," and has "moved on"; Johnson calls it "old news." But maybe the Yule Connection could facilitate a happier ending. A few sentences in the company history would be a good start.  v

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