Top 5 weirdest venues of 2010

December 22, 2010

I like weird. Especially oddball venues, which catapult even the most jaded viewer into fresh ways of seeing theater. They can’t redeem a production, but they’re pretty much guaranteed to boost the interest.

1. Basements: instant horror story. In April, the elusive Slimtack Theatre staged three Harold Pinter one-acts about torture in the basement of the director’s Uptown apartment building. We hung out first in the living room of director Mike Rice, then all filed downstairs to sit on folding chairs around a marked-off, lit “stage.” The rest of the dank, cavelike space was dark. And chilly. “Death to Fascism, Freedom for My People” was no blockbuster, but the flushing toilets and footsteps overhead made everyday life seem both tantalizingly close and impossibly distant.

2. Public parks famously offer few rigging opportunities. Yet last summer Theatre-Hikes, which specializes in ambulatory outdoor shows, chose to mount J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” in Peterson Park. I saw it on a beautiful day, so maybe it was the weather and the cheerful crowd—but when the actors told us that a little corner of the forest was the Darling family home, I believed them. When they said a grassy field was the sea, I believed that too. And when they said Peter Pan was flying, even though I saw that Mr. Darling was grabbing him around the thighs and hoisting, I totally believed. Imagination: what a great invention.

3. Companies can save time and money on sets and props simply by staging shows in, well, their settings. When Walkabout Theater produced Joe Zarrow’s satire on gentrification, “The Pigeons,” at West Town’s Swim Café last spring, not only were the espresso machines, cash register, and counter all there—you could order a coffee and cookies! Walkabout just plopped down some actors to play the place’s regulars: artists, real estate agents, neighborhood loonies. Swim’s long, narrow storefront presented some viewing challenges; I got a stiff neck from craning and whiplash. But the authenticity of this very funny farce was unimpeachable. (Side note: Walkabout, which specializes in site-specific work, once produced a play called “Psycho-So-Matic” in a laundromat.)

4. Being seated on the stage itself goes a long way toward tearing down the fourth wall. In October, audiences for “The Thank-You Bar,” by Minneapolis-based Emily Johnson, perched on folding chairs on the stage of the Dance Center of Columbia College. Johnson was aiming to reproduce the warm sense of community she’d felt at her grandmother’s bar of the same name in Alaska—and she got it. Everyone in our tight-knit little group of 40 was called out by name, received a gift (a glowing paper brick), and made a mass exodus to the other side of the stage when instructed to do so. But we had to give the bricks back.

5. In May, Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak staged “Stamina of Curiosity: Our Strange Elevations” in a landmark West Loop church. Epiphany Episcopal is a towering 1885 stone structure in the Romanesque style, still operating as a church but also renting out. Though not the first artist to produce a show there, Shanahan was the first to set a 6 p.m. “curtain”—just as the sun was setting, making the west-facing stained glass glow. No set designer, no lighting designer, could ever have matched the glory of that light, the grandeur of the 60-foot nave, or the sadness of its decayed interior. Tempus fugit. Including 2010.

(photos courtesy of Theatre-Hikes/Frank Farrell and Walkabout Theater/Steven Mazurek)