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The Sleeperer

How Theater Oobleck's The Strangerer got the 3 AM e-mail from New York.

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The latest Chicago stage production to head for New York hasn't exactly been high profile at home. Though it's had three runs here over the last two years, Theater Oobleck's The Strangerer apparently flew under the radar of the lead critics at the local mainstream papers. Playwright Mickle Maher says the dailies' big guns never made it to the show, which leaves it nicely positioned as an "underground" hit. That's always sexy.

And of course the critics who did make it pretty much raved their heads off, with words like "brilliant" and "hilarious" leaping from their keyboards. Still, when The Strangerer opens July 13 at the Barrow Street Theatre in lower Manhattan, it may face a little marketing challenge. The play's an odd duck: a take on the Albert Camus novel The Stranger (last read by most of us in high school) wedded to a fictionalized presidential campaign debate—minus the current candidates. In The Strangerer, it's 2004 and George Bush is facing John Kerry while Jim Lehrer moderates. When I posted news of the New York gig to the Reader's Onstage blog, a commenter was moved to remark that the idea "just doesn't seem timely."

Maher, who plays Kerry, thinks word of mouth will correct that impression. "Bush is still president," he says. "Everything he's done, including the war, is all still there." Besides, the play is "about how we acclimate ourselves to violence and senseless murder." Maher expects Bush, like Nixon, to be relevant as a character long after he's out of office, and notes that politics owes a lot to the art of theater. "If you're going to wage a successful war you have to have the audience behind you," he says. The real-life Kerry was like a "poorly written," inconsistent character, whereas Bush was better defined. From a dramatic perspective, Maher says, the election's outcome wasn't surprising.

Maher's script is whip-smart, and his performance in a swooping wig as a narcoleptic Kerry is funny enough, but the success of the play hangs on the two actors who trade off as the implacable Lehrer (Colm O'Reilly originated the part; I saw it with Brian Shaw, who has his man down cold) and on Guy Massey's performance as Bush. An Oobleck ensemble member, Massey had already played an inspired W in the company's 2004 preelection show, The Passion of the Bush. At this point he's superb, nailing every blink, wince, and weird pause.

The ensemble's origins go back to the University of Michigan in the early 1980s, where a core group of students including Jeff Dorchen, Danny Thompson, David Isaacson, Terri Kapsalis, and Maher founded the Streetlight Theater. They moved to Chicago in 1987 and launched Oobleck in '88, with performances at Cafe Voltaire. Staging just two or three shows a year, the company's made it to a 20th anniversary with no staff, no facility of its own—and no directors, who are regarded by Ooblecks as useless interlopers. A headless body of ten ensemble members and miscellaneous associates, operating on an annual budget that will hit $70,000 this year (including a grant from the Creative Capital Foundation), they write and perform their own work, subjecting it to heavy actor input in readings and rehearsals. In Chicago, admission is by donation of about $10—"free if you're broke, more if you've got it."

Maher says Oobleck was planning to put this show to bed after the close of its three-month run at Chopin Theatre on June 29. But one night he and Massey ran into Chicago actor Amy Warren—now in the New York production of Next Theater's The Adding Machine—on the Chopin steps. As Maher recalls it, she said, "You've got to come to New York," and they replied, "Yeah, yeah," figuring that would be the end of it. But Warren followed up, putting a bug in the ear of producer Scott Morfee as well. The upshot was a 3 AM post-Tony-party e-mail from Morfee saying, "Come."

Morfee says he got hooked on Chicago theater after producing Tracy Letts's Killer Joe in 1998. He and producer Tom Wirtshafter took over the 200-seat Barrow Street Theatre in 2003 and since then have hosted a number of shows with Chicago connections, including Letts's Bug, Austin Pendleton's Orson's Shadow, the musical improv troupe Baby Wants Candy, TJ & Dave (the Reader's choice for best improv group in our Best of Chicago issue last week), and The Adding Machine (at the Minetta Lane Theatre).

But none of the others came together with the breakneck speed of this one. According to Morfee, Barrow Street will provide the space, handle the box office, assist with marketing (it's got a 30,000-name e-mail list), and invite the critics. The Oobleck people will travel and be housed on their own dime. Details of the box office split hadn't been nailed down at press time, but it'll be "in the neighborhood of 50/50," says Morfee, for the anticipated six-week run. Back at home, Oobleck's scheduled to open a new election show at the NeoFuturarium in late September.

What Was Spertus Thinking?

The very public fiasco the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies has on its hands after closing its controversial Imaginary Coordinates exhibit on June 20, two months early, will make an interesting thesis subject someday—perhaps for a student in Spertus College's nonprofit management program.

The exhibit, which juxtaposed antique maps of the Holy Land and the work of contemporary Israeli and Palestinian artists, was trumpeted as part of a new mission to provide "programming that... asks questions and invites discussion." According to Spertus's most recent statement on the subject, it drew criticism for conveying "anti-Israel points of view" and put the institution "at risk of seriously alienating its core constituency."

"Core constituency" is understood to include the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Chicago, which contributes about $700,000 of Spertus's $11 million annual budget. But while federation officials criticized the exhibit—and further expressed their dissatisfaction by canceling an event scheduled to take place at the Spertus—its executive vice president Michael Kotzin says they "never threatened to pull any funding."

There are plenty of thesis-worthy questions hanging out there, including these: How did Spertus manage so seriously to misjudge the impact of the exhibit? How could it have been so ignorant of its own vulnerability to criticism? What role did its move to an expensive new building play in making it vulnerable?

Spertus president Howard Sulkin hopes any negative impact on the institution's credibility will be no more than a "blip." But right now, certain parts of that new building must feel awfully empty.

A Museum of One's Own

An open meeting to discuss starting a Chicago performing arts museum (an idea championed by the Reader's Albert Williams) will be held Monday, 8/4, 7 PM, at the Mercury Theatre, 3745 N. Southport.v

Care to comment? Find this story at chicagoreader.com. And for more on Chicago theater, see our blog Onstage.

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