Within 24 hours last weekend, I watched two artistic directors make their debuts at the artistic helm of two Chicago theater companies: Halena Kays at The Hypocrites and Chay Yew at the Victory Gardens Theater Company. Their opening salvos were striking in what they revealed about the contrasting ways in which arts groups change leadership.
At The Hypocrites, "Six Characters in Search of an Author" showed that the beloved artistic traditions of this company, long associated with former artistic director Sean Graney, are safe and to be celebrated.
At Victory Gardens, "Ameriville" showed that the beloved artistic traditions of this company, long associated with former artistic director Dennis Zacek, are collecting retirement.
Kays, working with the writer Steve Moulds, chose to make specific reference to The Hypocrites' past glories in her debut production. In the new outer frame of this adaptation of the classic drama by Luigi Pirandello, a group of actors shows up expecting to work with Graney, only to be told that his plate is now too full. It was a delicious nod to Graney's shadow over the company — as was a further reference to director David Cromer, whose production of "Our Town" at The Hypocrites became a national phenomenon. In Kays' "Six Characters," the actors come to terms with their dismal paychecks by convincing themselves they will have the chance to hang out later in the bar with Cromer, now a clout-heavy New York director.
All of this might have seemed precious, were it not entirely in the long Hypocrites tradition of self-reference. Kays has been around this company, as both an actress and a director, pretty much for as long as The Hypocrites has been in existence.
Confronting the artistic legacy so directly not only showed some guts, it revealed the sort of sense of humor that long has been a hallmark of Hypocrites shows.
Yet Kays, who staged this piece in a very arresting fashion, also showed some of her own directing chops. This felt like a natural succession: The Hypocrites would appear to be very much in the hands of a director who will preserve what it always has been — an irreverent, ambitious, risk-taking, self-aware, original-adaptation loving, off-Loop company with a style very much its own.
At Victory Gardens on Monday night, I opened the program to read that the theater's playwrights ensemble, long the centerpiece of this company, was now listed as a "playwrights ensemble emeritus." That caught the eye, even if it was not a total surprise. In a previous interview, Yew had outlined a plan very much along these lines, to bring in new writers while maintaining some kind of relationship with the past writers as mentors and supporters. One might reasonably assume that he said as much when he was being hired.
Still, if you're a playwright in an ensemble of playwrights, you have a reasonable expectation that the theater will produce your plays on occasion. Until the word "emeritus" is appended.
"Ameriville," which I enjoyed, is not so much a traditional script as an ensemble-created piece using an existing theater company, the South Bronx-based Universes. Yew directed the piece. It is an intensely political show, very much influenced by hip-hop, slam poetry and the culture of performance. And while I'm ever leery of ageist stereotypes, it's fair to say that the target demographic of such a piece is rather younger than the existing Victory Gardens audience member.
After my review, one of my correspondents pointed out, correctly, that the actors in "Ameriville" are not members of Actors' Equity. It was a one-off deal; the members of Universes are not traditional actors. But still.
I'm not arguing here that all artistic change should be incremental. Sometimes, organizations decide that creative revolution is in order, especially when there is a sense that a new audience needs to be identified. I was struck Monday night by the interesting possibilities that could emerge at the Biograph Theatre, a venue in a young and vibrant neighborhood, if Yew turns the joint into a kind of Chicago equivalent of the New York Public Theatre. That could be exciting. It will most certainly be different.
Back at Chopin Theatre — now one of my favorite artistic spaces in the entire city — the experience was familiar in all of the right ways. You can't go wrong at the Chopin right now: The House Theatre's superb "Death and Harry Houdini" is packing them in upstairs, and The Hypocrites are in the basement, a kinda-sacred space with a growing history. Graney and Cromer may not have been there opening night, but they aren't very far away.
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