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Dramatic Effect

The director Robert Falls made his name putting on groundbreaking shows that examine the psychological wreckage of tortured souls. Now, celebrating 20 years with the Goodman Theatre and settled into fatherhood, he is tackling the story of one of the most tormented fathers ever

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Photography: Chicago Tribune File Photo

Rehearsing In the Belly of the Beast with William Petersen in 1985

During the Falls era, The Good man has flouri shed, as highlighted by the theatre’s 2000 move from space next to the Art Institute of Chicago to its current $46-million home at Randolph and Dearborn. “We were lucky. He’s led the institution to a national place,” says Lew Manilow. “What’s major, when you look at a 20-year span, is not just its duration but the fact that he took it from A to Z.”

The numbers bear this out. During Falls ’s tenure, 207 shows have been produced on the Goodman’s stages. Of those, nine went to Broadway, four of them directed by Falls . Another 11, including three Falls productions, ran on Off-Broadway stages. Of the more than 50 world premières during Falls ’s 20 years, he directed eight.

The theatre has more than 23,000 subscribers. Sales revenue has grown from $2.5 million in 1986 to $8.5 million this year. In the same period, individual and corporate contributions have jumped from $1.5 million to $5.6 million. (The executive director, Roche Schulfer, who has been at the Goodman for more than 30 years, also deserves credit.) In 2003, the Goodman was cited as the number-one regional theatre in the United States by Time, just over a decade after it earned the 1992 Tony Award for outstanding regional theatre.

Falls also takes pride in the Goodman’s diversity. He has nurtured talents such as    Mary Zimmerman and the playwright Rebecca Gilman, whose latest star turn was last season’s Dollhouse, her update of the Henrik Ibsen classic, directed by Falls . “Bob is not at all afraid to bring in someone who might be better than him,” Zimmerman notes.

His artistic collective now includes the directors Henry Godinez, a cofounder of Teatro Vista, who oversees the Goodman’s biennial Latino Theatre Festival; Chuck Smith, long an important presence on Chicago’s African American theatre scene; and Regina Taylor, a TV star and playwright whose Dreams of Sarah Breedlove ran earlier this summer. This has resulted in more diverse works and an impressive growth in audiences of color.

Falls says his chief these days is his in ­ ability to showcase the edgy material that more accurately reflects his tastes. “Ulti- mately, the artistic director’s job is to lead the audience and to present work to the audience that is challenging and provoc- ative,” Falls says. “The Goodman audience is really smart and really up to being challenged, but I also know that there are certain works that are just not appropriate.”

Hedy Weiss, the Chicago Sun-Times’ s theatre critic, loves some of Falls’s work but, like others in the theatre world, wants him to take more risks. “Now, because it’s the regional downtown anchor that produces basically 24/7, I think it maybe consciously or unconsciously feels the pressure to get bodies in the seats,” she says. In contrast to the strong identity that kick-started the Falls years, Weiss says, the Goodman today “often feels like programming by committee.” She would like to see it figure out the balance between the main stage and the smaller studio, which would allow that second space to live up to its potential as being “more flexible, more risk taking.”

A Chicago theatre veteran who has worked with Falls offers a slightly different critique. This veteran, who asked to remain anonymous because the theatre community here is “a small town,” considers Falls “brilliant” and “the greatest PR man I’ve
ever met. He talks a fabulous game.” But this vet goes on to say that Falls relies too much on the technical crews-the people who design the sets, costumes, and lights-to get him through a play. “He puts a veneer on the play and doesn’t get to the heart of the matter.” One example the source cites is Falls ’s 1988 production of Landscape of
the Body, by John Guare. “He didn’t delve into the life and motivations of [the main female character], so consequently we didn’t get the play,” the vet explains. “We just got a surface reading.”

Still, this vet credits Falls with putting the Goodman on the map. Richard Christiansen agrees. Falls has made the Goodman “a major factor in resident theatres in the United States,” says Christiansen, whose 2004 book, A Theater of Our Own, drew on more than 40 years of following stage work here. “He did it by virtue of his own talent in producing shows and certainly in directing them.”

Photography: Courtesy Of Ralph Amelio

Starring as Willy Loman in a high-school production of Death of a Salesman

That talent should be on dis play in Lear, this year’s season opener. Falls and his leading man, Stacy Keach, have spent the past eight months e-mailing and talking about the elusive king and his multilayered drama. “It’s a play that communicates on multiple levels,” says Keach, who was the bastard Edmund to Lee J. Cobb’s 1968 Lear at Lincoln Center. “There’s always more. There’s always flux. There’s always change.”

Falls decided to set the play in modern times, connecting it to events in the post–World War II Balkans. “I’m not eager for people to reduce the play to a Balkan Lear, ” he says. He knows some will bristle at this reading, but he thinks the connection to the region’s history will spawn images that will illuminate the drama. “On a larger sociopolitical landscape, Lear, to me, can be read as a sort of parallel story of what happened to the larger Yugoslavia, what happened to Romania,” Falls explains. “That area saw very powerful figures in [Nicolae] Ceausescu or [Josip Broz] Tito, and then it saw a complete madness into despair and civil war and death.”

Keach, who is well regarded in the world of classical theatre but is most familiar to TV viewers for his starring role in Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and as the warden in Prison Break, initially bristled at this modern reading. Eventually, Keach says, he decided that Lear resonates with “that kind of a tyrant whose appetite for power is only equaled by his appetite for attention and [his] vanity. ‘Who loves me the most?’ is the whole trigger for this play.”

Falls believes that Shakespeare, and especially his tragedies, are best served in contemporary settings. “I’m much more interested, for example, in what Peter Sel-lars did with Merchant of Venice, ” Falls explains, “which says this is a relentlessly modern play that tells us what it is like to be alive today.”

That means merging the seasoned art ­ ist with the brash young director. ” King Lear will have a lot more maturity than my Hamlet did,” Falls says. “There’s no way that it can ever have as much youth or crazy energy as that Hamlet had, because I’m a different person.”

A month before rehearsals begin, Falls says his research helped him understand the play and justify his modern take. “I hope and think it will help audiences see the play in a fresh way and, to some extent, in a political way that’s larger than a play about this man and his daughter,” he says, “because I think it’s both-a domestic story and a great, large political story.”


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