Theater Wit opens smart performance space in Lakeview

Architect Richard_Kasemsarn (photo by Dick Smith) Architect Richard Kasemsarn with the plan of Theater Wit. (Photo by Dick Smith.)

 

Theater Wit: Chicago’s newest performance space opens

 

By Leah A. Zeldes

"It’s jaw-droppingly different," says Jeremy Wechsler, artistic director of Theater Wit, about his troupe’s new home.

After 16 months of a $1.3-million joists-out renovation, the one-time post office adjoining Theatre Building Chicago is now the sparkling new Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. (map), a dynamic new multi-performance space. The building, most recently Bailiwick Arts Centre, still has a few i’s to dot and t’s to cross before the city of Chicago grants its Public Amusements Venue license. Wechsler expects it in mid- Theater Wit lobby (photo by Joel Wanek) May; for now, Wit is running its inaugural play, Spin (our review ★★★), on a "suggested donations" basis. Valet parking isn’t in place yet, either, but for the time being, Wit has arranged free parking in the lot behind Cooper’s restaurant across the street.

The building now houses three 99-seat black-box theaters, providing a new showcase for intimate local productions.

"This is a size of theater that didn’t exist," Wechsler says. "There were (too small) 70-seat theaters, in which you could never turn a profit on a show, and (too expensive) 150-seat theaters … in which you could never turn a profit on a show. I really wanted this size of theater for myself."

Along with Wechsler’s Theater Wit company, Bohemian Theatre Ensemble, Shattered Globe Theatre and Stage Left Theatre will share the space as resident troupes, contributing work to the building and using about 75 percent of the performance time, with the remainder available for rental. In the fall, once all the theaters are up and running, Wit will introduce a flex-pass arrangement for tickets to all productions.

Architect Richard Kasemsarn explains that the theaters are cleverly separated by dressing rooms to create easy backstage access and keep sound from bleeding from one to the other. They are also insulated from exterior noise, save for occasional seepage through the brick wall from the adjoining Theatre Building. New metal joists support a variety of lighting configurations.

Theater Wit lobby (photo credit: Joel Wanek) One of the three theaters will feature flexible seating, not yet installed. Seats in the other two, salvaged from a Bolingbrook high-school auditorium, are surprisingly wide and comfortable, and they’re spaced with reasonable leg room, although their incline and offset don’t quite keep tall people from blocking your sight lines.

Theater Wit exterior (photo credit: Joel Wanek) Architectural salvage provides handsomely quirky decorative elements through the space, although you won’t mistake this for a posh downtown theater. It does retain that hand-built, slightly rough quality common to Chicago storefronts. Kasemsarn, who teaches at the School of the Art Institute, recruited students to help with the finishing.

The modest lobby features a bar, and the building has ample restrooms — a seven-stall ladies’ room should minimize lines at intermission. Oversized ductwork is intended to keep theater goers at comfortable temperatures without contributing noise.

"I really want to control everything from the time you hit that lobby door," Wechsler says.

Theater Wit architectural drawings (photo by Dick Smith)

REVIEW: Spin (Theater Wit)

Theater Wit opens new space on a dark note

 

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Theater Wit presents
 
Spin
 
By Penny Penniston
Directed by
Jeremy Wechsler
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. (map)
Thru June 5  |  Tickets: $25 (suggested donation) |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

"I know you’re watching."

That phrase repeats over and over again in smart new play, Spin, as characters break the fourth wall and address the audience in a series of creepy monologues that compel us to consider life as art and everything we do as theater.

Wit_Spin_9_72dpi The solidly acted and impeccably staged world premiere by Penny Penniston, directed by her husband, Jeremy Wechsler, inaugurates Theater Wit’s terrific new Lakeview home. Theater Wit confusingly calls this somewhat murky black comedy, Penniston’s first play since the 2000 time-travel romance now then again, a "modern-day farce." It’s often funny and sometimes absurd, but don’t expect slamming doors, mixed-up bedrooms, mistaken identities or lightweight humor.

Set in a modern bachelor pad, designed by Jack Magaw, that effectively illustrates what one character describes as a "Pier One explosion," Spin follows Brent, a 40-ish advertising creative in mid-life crisis. Played by Coburn Goss in an Alan Alda-ish vein, Brent’s out of work, recently divorced and questioning the reality of his life. He also has the hots for a gorgeous, teenage homeless girl whom he’s just "rescued" from a fight with her would-be radical boyfriend.

Meanwhile, ex-colleague and old friend Redge, now heading his own agency, recruits Brent for a beer campaign. Joe Foust gives the soulless Redge just the right level of slime. They bring in self-made sports figure Ruby Jones (a cross between Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods) — the slightly stiff Austin Talley – as a spokesman, and create a campaign aimed at a demographic oddly like Brent himself. But an unfortunate viral video and Brent’s unraveling self-image intervene.

The murkiness comes in most strongly with the troubling Lolita-like character of the homeless teenager, Danielle. Is she opportunistic or exploited? Alice Wedoff’s diffident portrayal leaves us guessing, and the role just gets ickier as the play progresses.

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Danielle’s boyfriend, Aaron (played with puppyish avidity by Michael Kessler) relies on her to feed his ego. Brent deludes himself into thinking she’s 19, when she’s really much younger. Redge takes out-and-out advantage.

She adds little to the play’s themes other than shock factor, though, and it would be a far funnier comedy without her, and particularly without her Act II monologue. Although they address interesting concepts, the introspective monologues obscure the humor generally — and sometimes feel like add-ons meant to stretch a one-act play into a full-length show.

Yet when the dialogue pokes fun at modern memes and 21st-century life, this comedy shines. Lance Baker’s wonderfully understated performance as Jack, a dry-witted account executive offhandedly commenting on the action, forms the highlight of the play. Elements like these overcome the tired tropes of crazy creative, materialistic ad man, impractical idealist and avaricious slut, and make Spin well worth watching.

 
 
Rating: ★★★
 
 

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Theater Thursday: Spin (Theater Wit)

Thursday, May 6th

Spin by Penny Penniston

Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago

spinCome check out Chicago’s newest performance facility. Theater Wit will be offering backstage tours of their new home from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., followed by a performance of Penny Penniston‘s remarkable new comedy, Spin. Complimentary snacks and coffee post show, as well as additional tours of the new three-theater performance facility will be provided by Artistic Director Jeremy Wechsler. When Brent loses his high paying job as an art director for a big name advertising firm and goes through a divorce, he falls back on his Plan B, resolving to remake himself. With a host of good intentions and self-help books about Buddhism he takes in a street kid and renounces worldly possessions. But when tempted with prestige and cash by an old advertising buddy, he sells his life over to a beer company. Literally. When his best intentions bring him to a couch, a bomb, a celebrity hostage and the contempt of his co-workers and girlfriend, some serious self-examination is in order.

Event begins at 6:30 p.m.

Show begins at 8 p.m.

TICKETS ONLY $25 

For reservations call 773.975.8150 and mention "Theater Thursdays."