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Actor Michael Shannon stars in a new play 'Turret' from A Red Orchid Theatre being staged at the Chopin Theatre

Oscar-nominated actor Michael Shannon is back in Chicago, where he helped found A Red Orchid Theatre more than three decades ago. This time, Shannon stars in a world premiere play, Turret, which runs at the Chopin Theatre through June 9.

Michael Shannon is back to searing, in-your-face Chicago theater

Everyone wants a piece of Michael Shannon. The venerable character actor has been booked and busy in recent years as Hollywood’s de facto supporting man, appearing in everything from Showtime’s George & Tammy alongside Jessica Chastain to Nocturnal Animals, for which he earned his second Oscar nomination.

But tonight he’s back home — and that’s hardly an exaggeration. Even though he lives in New York and commutes back there on weekends to see his daughters, Shannon has once again found his way back to A Red Orchid, the small theater company in Chicago’s Old Town that he helped found more than three decades ago.

“Red Orchid is where I became an actor,” Shannon says. “At this point, I don’t really come back [to Chicago] unless it’s for Red Orchid.”

For the next several weeks, he’s starring in Turret, a new play, in a role written with him in mind: a grizzled soldier in a bunker, in the wake of a war that nearly eliminated humanity. It’s the type of show A Red Orchid is known for, and it was written and directed by ensemble member Levi Holloway, whose play, Grey House, ran on Broadway last summer. (Turret opens Thursday in previews and runs through June 9.)

At a rehearsal nine days before previews open, Shannon enters the eclectic, tchotchke-filled Chopin Theatre and a chorus of “Hi, Mike!” echoes through the room. Shannon, who is 49, is tall, but not imposing. He walks with an off-kilter gait and, as Holloway put it, wears a sort of world weariness on his face.

In Turret, Shannon’s character Green is training his apprentice, Rabbit (Travis A. Knight), in hopes of someday being able to bring their species back from the brink, although the prospects look bleak. The two-story set looks like a silo that’s been sliced open. It’s here that Green and Rabbit live, train their minds and bodies, and play games of cribbage.

Brooding and authoritative as Green, Shannon approaches the character development process like a beat cop, Holloway says — dogged in his hunt of honesty. “He might squint a little bit and work on a moment, and then because of his pursuit of the truth, that moment can become very stripped down to its essential qualities,” Holloway says.

Getting Shannon in a Red Orchid show is not as simple, logistically, as it used to be. Kirsten Fitzgerald, the company’s artistic director, said the actor works hard to not make it overly complicated for the company because he knows their resources are limited — but he’s in high demand and getting on his calendar takes considerable pre-planning and sometimes, creativity. For example, Turret was originally slated to open a week earlier, but another project was added to Shannon’s schedule, so the team moved the production back — something they’re able to do as a smaller theater.

“There are a lot of people who want his talent in the room,” Fitzgerald said. Just this week, there’s been buzz that Shannon is attached to a new historical thriller about the Nuremberg trials, along with Russell Crowe and Rami Malek.

But for right now, Shannon’s focus is on the stage. Turret will be staged at the Chopin in Wicker Park — the first time the company has ever opened a show outside their own space. In part, that’s because Shannon’s name is on the program.

“The question we had to ask is, well, can we fill that space? It has twice as many seats as our space does. And I think we were willing and able to take that risk partially because Michael is in the room for this one and we know that there is a big draw there,” said Fitzgerald.

But beyond ticket sales, which Fitzgerald said are off to a strong start, the location change poses a question far more precious to Red Orchid’s deeply loyal artists: Can they bring the same edge and honesty they are known for to a considerably larger space? On their home turf, there is nowhere to hide — and that has become a signature part of the company’s identity. “It has defined our work in terms of the intimacy and the sort of pressure cooker of it all,” Fitzgerald said.

Among the ranks, there’s a confidence that Holloway’s script will be able to bring that same intensity to a different setting. “He’s not afraid to go to some pretty terrifying places that exist in all of us, but are rarely able to be talked about for fear of being judged,” Fitzgerald said.

As Holloway began writing the play at the onset of the pandemic, he was writing the roles with Shannon, Knight and the third cast member, Lawrence Grimm, in mind.

The show is a sort of spiritual cousin to Grey House, which Knight also appeared in when it premiered in Chicago. Both are set in the Pacific Northwest and both are mined from the nightmare-ish side of Holloway’s imagination. But where Grey House was true horror, Holloway said Turret “only kind of wears the jacket of horror.”

“It’s really heartfelt, and really sweet and sad and funny, I hope,” he said.

As they get to work, Shannon is locked on his lines and exudes a strong sense of introspection. After Shannon exits the scene, he takes a seat in the house and is rapt as he watches — laughing at a moment of levity. He also offers a few minutes to talk about this role, in particular, and why it drew him back.

“We keep trying to find new forms and new stories to tell,” Shannon says of Red Orchid. “It’s kind of antithetical, I guess, to, you know, branding, which is what you’re supposed to do nowadays, but I feel like our biggest strength is that we don’t necessarily tie ourselves to one post — we’re willing to go anywhere and try anything.”

In that sense, Turret is a quintessential Red Orchid production: It drops the audience into a world drummed up in Holloway’s imagination without much context to guide them along.

“[Holloway is] not afraid to challenge the audience or put the audience in the position where they have to meet the play halfway, which I also really like,” Shannon said. “I don’t like spoon feeding people things. I feel like if you’re going to show up, you should be as involved in what’s happening as we are.”

After running a scene, Holloway doesn’t give Shannon many notes — at least not in front of the room full of crew members and a journalist. Instead, the director and leading man mostly finesse blocking — Shannon only speaking up when he has a solution to offer.

Holloway, who is directing for Red Orchid for the first time, appears comfortably in charge. He’s decisive, but also admits multiple times that he’s “still figuring out” what the play needs and what any given character’s motivation is moment to moment. As the Chicago-based playwright was working on this project, his father passed away, which led to a lot of their relationship ending up on the page. But then, his son was born — a second, life-altering event that “changed the whole temperature of the piece to become a lot warmer,” he said.

Amid the end-of-the-civilization backdrop, the show is about male relationships and vulnerability. And that’s the kind of real-world, honest storytelling the team is working hard to nail.

It’s just the type of thing that Red Orchid still offers Shannon — something he can’t get anywhere else.

“I think we’re all scared if Red Orchid, for whatever reason, closed its doors, we wouldn’t be able to find somewhere like it,” Shannon said. “That’s why we try to keep it open.

“I mean, to say I feel a debt to Red Orchid Theatre sounds kind of pretentious, because, who am I?” he asks, seemingly completely unaware that he’s Michael Shannon, the movie star.

“But I do like the idea of taking whatever quote, unquote success I’ve had and using it to fortify the theater, because I feel like it deserves that.”

If you go: Turret runs May 2-June 22 (Shannon’s last performance will be June 16) at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St. Tickets from $75.

Courtney Kueppers is an arts and culture reporter at WBEZ.

Updated: This story was updated to reflect that this is the first play Levi Holloway directed for A Red Orchid. And to reflect that the show has been extended.

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