Late last month, Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company, a reliable supplier of off-Loop ferocity across 29 years and more than 100 productions, announced that its just-commenced 30th season will be its last. According to the theater’s longtime artistic director Richard Cotovsky, there are two reasons for this: One having to do with the lease, the other with energy. Cotovsky says the company has lost both.
This summer, he learned that Mary-Arrchie’s performance space, a somewhat rickety second-floor walkup on Sheridan Road just north of Boystown, had been sold to new owners with plans to redevelop the whole corner. “The new landlord came up the stairs and gave us a paper saying he was the new landlord,” Cotovsky says. “I have yet to have a real conversation with the guy, but I’m sure we’re in the plans for adios.”
New condos are likely in the cards. An early blueprint Cotovsky saw proposed a seven-story residential building for the block. “Way back when,” he says, “people were sending around this document that had the plans for the redevelopment, and I looked where the theater was, and it said ‘bike storage.’” He laughs heartily at the indignity of it.
With a yearly budget of only about $80,000 and some debt (“mainly owed to myself,” Cotovsky adds), the theater was in no position to buy its current building. But it didn’t have to be the end. Mary-Arrchie could have found new digs, as its neighbor, Strawdog Theatre Company, intends to do, or gone itinerant, renting space from venues such as Stage 773 in Lakeview or the Den Theatre in Wicker Park. There was talk among ensemble members, in fact, of continuing on, but it didn’t pan out.
That’s where the lack of energy comes in. As recently as 2012, Mary-Arrchie was enjoying the biggest financial success in its history with a pair of critical and box-office hits: a seedy revival of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams and a highly evocative take on Tracy Letts’s Uptown-set Superior Donuts, starring Cotovsky in the leading role. “We had a couple blockbuster years where we broke through the $200,000 barrier,” he says. “We just didn’t parlay that, I guess you would say. The energy drifted.” And, says Cotovsky, that’s ultimately more important than box office receipts. “Money is nothing if you have energy,” he says. “I just don’t see where there’s any kind of inspiration or enthusiasm around the theater at this point.”
To hear that those qualities are running low at Mary-Arrchie is a little surprising, since one of the distinguishing marks of the company has been its savage verve. That, and its commitment to bringing onstage the sort of characters you might have once found lurking across the street at the flophouse known as the Chateau Hotel—until, that is, it was closed down, too, and scheduled for redevelopment.
Which is not to suggest that Cotovsky thinks storefront theater is in danger of being priced out of the city by gentrification. “Storefront theaters will always exist,” he says, “because they’re built with young people hungry to express themselves.” For a good long while, those hungry young artists just starting out were a vital resource for Cotovsky, who could always bring in fresh recruits when company members outgrew the place or went on to other things. After a while, though, that gets exhausting—and the 61-year-old Cotovsky sounds awfully tired when he talks about it. “I have to keep bringing in new talent, and I’m getting a little long in the tooth myself,” he says. “It ultimately becomes a load on my back. I can’t do this by myself.”
And so Mary-Arrchie will take its last bow some time next spring. After the current production of Guardians by Peter Morris, the theater plans to stage Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts later this fall and David Mamet’s American Buffalo in 2016, with maybe one more show to follow. And that’ll be that.
“We’ve had enough,” Cotovsky says. “We’ve expressed ourselves. We’ve done what we needed to do. How much more can we say?”