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Prop Loses Its Lease/Selling Guys and Dolls/Fruitful Fictionist

Jonathon Lavan and Prop Theatre have lost their lease on North Avenue. And the off-Loop theater scene may be losing one of its more popular stages.

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Prop Loses Its Lease

The city's theater industry may be about to lose one of its cheap, accessible, and popular off-Loop venues: a ramshackle but cozy space called the Garage at 1843 W. North. Co-owner Rich Katz is negotiating with a private phone company that wants to acquire the property, and he guesses there's "about a 50-50 chance" the deal will go through. "We've been trying to sell the property on and off for several years," he explains. The Garage, which has housed a number of cutting-edge productions over the past several years, was an attractive space for many small theater companies because of its adaptability, its location, and its reasonable rent.

If the proposed deal should collapse, Katz doesn't rule out letting theater companies continue to produce in the space. But Prop Theatre, which moved out of the Garage at the end of May after six years there, won't be among those invited to return. "We asked them to vacate the property because the company was falling far behind in its rent payments," says Katz. Prop apparently had a hint that its hold on the space was shaky: "We had been on a month-to-month lease since the beginning of 1994," explains Jonathan Lavan, Prop's managing director.

One of the company's biggest successes there was its 1990 production of Mass Murder, a chilling and hugely popular homage to some of history's most gruesome murderers. The success of that production inevitably led to a sequel, Mass Murder II, that Prop was mounting when it received word it was losing its lease. Six weeks into its run Prop transferred the show to Lakeview's Live Bait Theater, where it continues despite some loss of momentum. Lavan says Prop had planned to move Mass Murder II even before it lost its lease so it could sublease the space to a commercial production of a new play called Still. Still's producers are now leasing the Garage from Katz; the show is scheduled to end its run this weekend.

Prop had struggled financially in the last year; it had been coleasing the Garage with Theatre of the Reconstruction until that company folded in mid-1993, leaving Prop with what Lavan termed "a load of bad debt." Lavan says Prop will launch a search for a new home, probably in Ukrainian Village, if it can rustle up enough money.

Selling Guys and Dolls

The Jerry Zaks-directed revival of Guys and Dolls rocked Broadway when it debuted there two years ago, and it's still racking up respectable grosses at New York's Martin Beck Theatre. But it doesn't look as if it will be the same kind of box-office sensation here. The national touring production arrived at the Shubert Theatre this week at the end of its 18-month tour for a four-week run. Privately producers had hoped to stretch out the Chicago run for several more weeks; there is no commitment to open the show in another city, nor are there any scheduled bookings at the Shubert until September. But earlier this week a Shubert spokeswoman said that for now the show is sticking to its originally announced schedule, though she didn't rule out a last-minute extension.

The Shubert typically begins promoting shows just six weeks before a scheduled opening, said the spokeswoman, but it's been running an aggressive ad campaign for Guys and Dolls since February. Partly that was to start building the show's visibility during a season when theatergoers are in the mood to buy tickets. (Summer is traditionally considered the worst time of year to get people into a theater.) Shubert management also augmented its traditional mix of television, radio, and print ads with bus boards and suburban Metra station signage, inserted fliers in local editions of the New York Times, and mailed information about the production to overseas travel agents and tour operators in anticipation of World Cup crowds.

But all the hype doesn't appear to have generated a flood of ticket sales; there are still good seats available for most performances. Then again this is a revival of a familiar script with a hefty top ticket of $57 and no above-the-title star to pique interest. More often than not it's stars who sell big-ticket productions in the Loop. Producer Garth Drabinsky is quick to single out Donny Osmond as the reason for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat's record-breaking run at the Chicago Theatre. Early print ads for Guys and Dolls mentioned Zaks, who's well-known in New York theater circles, but not so much here. Guys and Dolls began the national tour with Lorna Luft in the cast, but her role has since been taken over by understudy Beth McVey.

Fruitful Fictionist

What They Did to Princess Paragon is the third and newest novel from Robert Rodi, who undoubtedly can lay claim to being Chicago's most prominent and prolific openly gay fiction writer. Published last month by New York-based Dutton, Princess Paragon is about a lesbian cartoon superhero and a brash gay cartoonist. The new book does not deal with gay relationships, a subject the author believes is overworked: "I wanted to write about gay people in ordinary conflicts that don't have to do with sex." Only a year ago Dutton released Closet Case, Rodi's second novel. "They would like me to do a book a year," says Rodi. Rodi already is in the middle of writing his next Dutton release, about a straitlaced attorney whose twin brother is a drag queen.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.

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