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Those hip Chicago theaters. Spunky and controversial, they're in the spotlight

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By now they know they're hot. Ever since a handful of Chicago's resident theaters began blitzkrieging New York and Washington with their unorthodox productions, including Sam Shepard's ``True West'' and David Mamet's 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning ``Glengarry Glen Ross,'' and ever since the news media began calling this the hottest theater town in the country, these nonprofit theaters have begun to believe it.

Collectively, they've begun to listen to all the attention being paid to their youthful energy and their hip theatrical style, which frequently fuses controversial topics with rock-and-roll music and a no-holds-barred ensemble acting technique that, in the case of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, has been called the finest acting company in the country. Now with their 1985-86 season under way, these dozens of Off Loop theaters are beginning to act on their success.

Already two Chicago productions -- Steppenwolf's revival of ``The Caretaker'' and Victory Gardens' ``The God of Isaac'' -- are slated for Off Broadway runs. Two productions have moved into local commercial houses for extended runs -- a move that many observers are calling the next trend in Chicago theater. Meanwhile, several theaters are busy producing new local playwrights, while other companies are improving their professional standing by striding from nonunion to Equity status.

Despite some inevitable personnel shifts, impressive work continues to be done at the Steppenwolf, the Goodman Theatre, and Wisdom Bridge Theatre. And in the best of the scrappy Chicago tradition, some of the most exciting theater can be found in the tiny storefront companies such as the Stormfield Theatre. Collectively, it is a season of transition and continued growth.

Buoyed by a string of New York successes, a 1985 Tony Award, and six local Jefferson Awards, Steppenwolf has swung into its 10th season with another newsmaking production. Its revival of Harold Pinter's ``The Caretaker'' resurrects the same cast and director as in its 1979 production, but to different effect.

Directed by ensemble member John Malkovich, Pinter's enigmatic tale of two strange brothers (Mick and Aston) whose symbiotic relationship is strained by the intrusion of a grasping, vinegary tramp (Davies), hurtles along on new rhythms. The typical Pinter pauses have been largely rushed, creating a production that is heavy on psychological realism and lighter on ideological interpretation.

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