The hottest name in Chicago theater isn't downtown — it's a storefront in Wicker Park

The Den Theatre — the hip, multi-stage venue on Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park — has been one of the great success stories of the last decade in Chicago theater. For the past generation, both Bucktown and Wicker Park have been light on theaters, despite their young, urbanite populations. But in the middle of all the bar and restaurant action, the cultural entrepreneur Ryan Martin has built up an arts center that has really blown up this summer.

Artistically speaking.


I was chilling there last weekend and I could barely get through the door. Too many bodies in the lobby.

That’s because Martin, who operates without drawing attention to himself, quietly has booked a whole raft of hits.


Let’s review. In the downstairs mainstage, you’ve got Sandra Delgado’s “La Havana Madrid,” now the most popular production in the history of Teatro Vista. I saw the show in its first outing in 2017 at the Steppenwolf Theatre and thought it a very heartfelt tribute to a legendary Chicago night spot and a reminder both of the power of localized theater and the benefits of offering ordinary, hard-working people a really good night out with music, memory and dance. Others have caught up with the show now, and this remount has been packing the house.

Down the hall, you have “Queen of the Mist,” Firebrand Theatre’s zesty, feisty production of a Michael John LaChiusa musical about the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and emerge on the other side. It offers a chance to see the incomparable Barbara Robertson up close and personal; truly, there is no better single performance on offer in Chicago right now. That show is likely to sell out this weekend, too.

Upstairs, you’ll find “Four Places,” the 2008 Joel Drake Johnson play dealing with the heart-wrenching midlife problem of aging family members and their need for care. I recall the original production with great affection. In the Tribune, freelance critic Kerry Reid reviewed this latest staging (directed by Lia Mortensen) and gave the show 3½ stars. Reid said the piece offered up an “emotional stew of ugly recriminations and bittersweet memories.” She had particular praise for the actress Meg Thalken — like Robertson, a bonafide Chicago star working in close quarters and digging deep at The Den.

Climbing the stairs offers another rewarding show: the lovely Griffin Theatre production of “For Services Rendered,” a moving and smart revival of a prescient play by W. Somerset Maugham, set in provincial England in the years immediately after World War I. It’s a really beautiful play about the difficulty of change; I recommended it for fans of “Downton Abbey” and other period dramas. Robin Witt’s production is excellent.

So, in other words, the Tribune recommends that you see pretty much everything at The Den right now. You could spend the whole weekend there. It’s a diverse slate, too — you should be able to find at least one of these shows to float your particular June boat.

Better yet, Martin has opened a busy bar and coffeehouse on street level, bringing in people from Milwaukee Avenue and, of course, putting them in mind of what else might be going on in the building. Lots of the city’s small venues have tried to create one of those precious “third spaces,” as a way of opening up their doors to a broader population. But with the exception of Steppenwolf’s highly successful Front Bar, only The Den really has pulled it off. This venue is on one of the liveliest streets in the city, and it is pulling energy from outside and then sending it back out its doors.

How has Martin done all this? A neighborhood location with a lot of pedestrian traffic helps. Cooler signage and far better visual marketing than most multi-stage venues helps even more. So does having a variety of interesting performance spaces and a multi-story building with a lot of charm and action. So does a willingness to push the boundaries and include comedy, music and all kinds of live entertainment. And so does a welcoming, informal and inclusive spirit.

Martin also has invested in his physical plant. Some competing multi-stage venues feel down at heel. The Den ripples with energy.


Of course, it’s a truism of the theater business that people don’t buy tickets to buildings. You have to deliver shows that people actually want to see.

Well, here’s four of them we’re willing to stand behind.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.