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Theater People: "a seat in the stalls" takes on a whole new meaning

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Boys-make-a-fort plays, first dragged under the gels by the likes of Harold Pinter and David Mamet, are a staple of off-Loop theater. The formula confines a handful of (usually male) characters to a claustrophobic setting in which they can do little save crack wise and stab each other in the back. The talky scripts, which call for few actors and require simple sets, treat serious themes yet can yield steady laughs.

The environments writers rely on to provide these knots of modern guys with their desert islands range from the workplace microcosms of Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross and Lakeboat to less public settings: divey bars, dingy motel rooms, poker games, mom's basement. With his first play, Downsize, writer and Walkabout Theater member Chris Welzenbach has taken tree-fort noir to its logical extreme. The five white male characters are midlevel corporate executives marking time before the meeting where their boss--"the big guy"--will decide who gets the coveted new accounts and who gets sent to Milwaukee. The site of their chatting, plotting, kvetching, and spying? The john. Literally: the show opens next Friday in the men's bathroom at the Steppenwolf Theatre Garage.

Welzenbach temped in the legal department of Illinois Bell in 1995 as Ameritech (since swallowed in turn by SBC) digested the company. There he watched once-powerful decision makers talk shit in the stalls like scared high school kids. "These were highly educated people," he says, "but they were incredibly sociopathic and bigoted. When there aren't any women or people of color around--when they feel safe--their behavior completely changes." Though he wasn't making their kind of money, Welzenbach thinks that because he too is a white guy they saw no reason to put on civilized pretenses when he shared their pissoir. He saw no reason to discourage them. "It's like turning over a rock and finding all kinds of grubs crawling around." Now, he's letting the worms turn in public.

Director Stephan Mazurek, also a Walkabout member, says he relishes the setting's potential to unnerve both performers and observers. "There is no fourth wall--the stage is 360 degrees," he says. The actors will have the public breathing down their necks, while viewers surrender their usual license to hide in the dark: all will be under ugly lights, the slightest giggle ricocheting off the tiles. "The stakes are higher for everyone," says Mazurek. "There'll be no nodding off or crossing of arms."

Downsize previews Thursday, June 19, and premieres Friday, June 20; both shows are at 9:45 at the Garage, 1650 N. Halsted. It's also booked into loos at the Athenaeum Theatre (July 10 through 12) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (August 1), but the rest of the summer is still up in the air. Walkabout doesn't know if it'll be able to sell tickets to such small venues at the door--"Capacity will vary from toilet to toilet," says Mazurek--and some theaters have backed out of hosting Downsize or have yet to confirm. Nonetheless the company hopes to put on the show every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night through August 19; for more information see www.walkabouttheater.org or call 312-458-0566.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.

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