Chicago Tribune


Delighting in that old fringe-fest feeling
Michael Phillips, Tribune theater critic
Published May 16, 2003

It makes no sense. Putting on a good-sized, localized theater festival--an occasion for simultaneous and multiple diversions from different companies in one neighborhood, or under one roof--makes no sense whatsoever. Not in this economy.

But some endeavors are worth championing on their artistic merits--to heck with "profit." One such endeavor is the Performing Arts Chicago/edge Performance Festival, the first edition of which took place March 28-April 26 all over the converted St. Alphonsus High School, better known as the Athenaeum Theatre.
I caught criminally little of the inaugural festival, beyond participating in a critics' panel. What I managed to see, however, reminded me of the pleasures afforded by "a lot of interesting collisions," as Plasticene Physical Theater's Dexter Bullard put it. I got that old fringe festival vibe, the sense that a lot of my fellow theatergoers were willing to catch as catch can. (That show's sold out? OK, I'll try the other one.)

The Athenaeum is a lovely place for a theatrical pile-up. Its echo-chamber hallways and high ceilings bespeak "converted Catholic high school" in all the right ways. On any given night those halls buzzed with activity, opinions and where-should-we-drink-after-the-show queries.

Some performance pieces, such as 500 Clown's "500 Clown Frankenstein," posted sellout notices early and often. Others struggled to reach an audience. But by the third weekend, according to Bullard--who remounted his company's fascinating "Palmer Raids" as part of the lineup--"the festival really had a pulse."

No one, not even PAC executive director and festival curator Susan Lipman, claims the inaugural edition broke even. Produced in association with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on a lean $60,000 budget, it was a labor-intensive, logistical megillah, involving 18 Chicago avant-garde performance companies serving up 114 performances. Eight productions were world premieres, including the wry, physically charged "Interference," a riff on Aristophanes' "The Birds" from Leslie Buxbaum-Danzig and the company known as DOG.

Attendance, according to PAC officials, totaled around 3,600.

Not bad. Still, every year Chicago can boast of much larger, better-funded and better-known cultural events. Why is this one special?

Part of the fun is just that: It's fun. After one too many officious evenings of playgoing, it's fun to walk into a great old building where, at any given time, several different shows are putting the whammy on their respective audiences. And where else could you overhear the following straight-faced conversation between a couple of theatergoers:

"You know, I think of all the bathrooms in the city . . . "


"The Athenaeum's are the coolest."

Beyond the facilities, and in addition to brand-new work, the PAC fest offered audiences a chance to catch up with well-received shows they missed. Last fall Plasticene, one of the city's finest, fiercest troupes, premiered "The Palmer Raids," an explosive collage treatment of the 1919 U.S. terrorist bombings and subsequent civil-liberties crackdown. This dark Jazz Age tale was retooled for the festival. Bullard says that doing "Palmer Raids" as part of the PAC fest was "extremely exciting, because the festival brought together all these different homemade Chicago artists."

The informal audience surveys, however, were "a little surprising," says PAC marketing and development associate Kerry Hayes. The majority of survey respondents may have been in their 20s and 30s, but every other spectrum was covered. People took their kids. Retired academics looked in on "The Palmer Raids" or the one-of-a-kind "Wax & Wayne," in which live humans get dipped in hot wax and live to tell about it. ("Wax & Wayne" has just opened a month-long run at the National Pastime Theater, 4139 N. Broadway. You should see it.)

"A lot of theaters claim to take risks," Bullard says of the PAC fest, "but really, this was risk-taking work."

PAC's Lipman says that a second annual PAC fest is definite, and it'll be back at the Athenaeum. What's lacking is a major sponsor, a corporate or philanthropic entity interested in getting its name planted in the consciousness of the festival's predominant--and in dreaded marketplace terms, attractive--18- to 34-year-old demographic.

These aren't easy times. My estimable colleague Chris Jones (who is taking a short break from this column space to spend time with his new baby boy) has written about PAC's up-and-down fiscal fortunes.

All I know is how I felt walking into the Athenaeum a couple of Friday nights ago, amid a swirl of genuine theatrical curiosity.

"They're fighting for money, just like we are," says Plasticene's Bullard, referring to PAC. "But they make a lot happen with a little."

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune