Oct 27, 2010

Stepping In It

As the Chicago theater scene's hometown booster, it's pretty much Chris Jones' job to be outraged by something like this (h/t Isaac):

The first scene of Tuesday's episode [of The Good Wife]...was set at a fundraiser in a hotel ballroom. "And now as dinner is served," says the hostess, "Steppenwolf Theatre will entertain us with scenes from their hit play, 'The Cow With No Country.'"

Yeah, that's credible. Steppenwolf does bits of its shows in hotel ballrooms all the time. Just as the beef is served.

And with that introduction, a motley and pathetic little group of ragamuffin actors popped out, replete with their crude puppet-cow and all, and do some kind of whacked-out performance that lands somewhere between moronic Medieval drama, pantomime, Bertolt Brecht, "War Horse" and "Jack and the Beanstalk."

English accents and all. We kid you not. What has that got to do with Steppenwolf?

Isaac's right that it's probably wrong to blame the actors. But Jones' post made me think of a few other instances of light mockery directed toward the company: the inspired epilogue of Being John Malkovich, for instance, in which we learn, PBS docu-style, about how the title character, possessed by John Cusack's seedy puppeteer, goes on to turn his acclaimed theater company in a new, puppet-oriented direction.

Jones' piece, in which he concedes that Steppenwolf can leave itself open to parody at times, also reminded me of something Austin Pendleton told me about his first impression of the troupe some years ago:
An outside producer saw a play Pendleton directed Off-Broadway in 1979, Ralph Pape's Say Goodnight, Gracie, and wanted to take it to Chicago. But there were catches on both sides: The play's New York producer would only let the play move only if Pendleton was kept on as the director, and the Chicago producer would only accept that condition if his own special terms were met.

"He said, 'OK, but you have to use the members of this new company called Steppenwolf,' " Pendleton recalls. "At the time, I thought: 'There's a group that actually calls themselves "the Steppenwolf"? That's pathetic. Either they're trying to borrow the energy of a rock group, or, even worse, they've named themselves after the Herman Hesse novel.' I wasn't interested, but the producer insisted.

"So, grumpily I went off to Chicago, and as soon as I began to work with the company, I got swept away by them."

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