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Shakespeare, romance, and 'architectural acting'

Chicago Shakespeare Theater appeals to highbrows, lowbrows, and everyone in between.

The theater is on Navy Pier, next to a ferris wheel and an arcade. The lobby is filled with the perfume of popcorn and cotton candy. But inside, on a deep thrust stage surrounded by gallery tiers made of warm wood and brick, something serious is happening: an exceptional production of Richard II. During scene changes, insistent and brash screeching sound effects underscore the shocking emotions of the play as unscrupulous Bolingbroke removes the rightful - if foolish - King Richard and ascends to the throne himself. The stark stage, blinding lights, and imaginative effects disrupt the viewer's physical complacency, just as the ideas in the play itself do.

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Barbara Gaines, artistic director of Chicago Shakespeare, takes all of her hints for what's to show on stage from Shakespeare's own words. Consequently, the play sheds light on how mixed human motives can be, the individual's responsibility to society, and the wastefulness of violence. "I do believe Shakespeare creates light," Ms. Gaines says. "I've learned a great deal about human nature from doing 'Richard II.' "

Chicago writers Laura Eason and Jessica Thebus shed another kind of light - a little bluer, perhaps - in They All Fall Down: The Richard Nickel Story at the Lookingglass Theatre. Based on the biography by Richard Cahan of Richard Nickel, the play concerns the Chicago photographer's lifelong crusade to save the extraordinary buildings of Louis Sullivan, a major architect of the so-called Chicago School. He failed in his mission - only two of Sullivan's beautiful buildings survived the wrecking ball. But Nickel did manage to rescue much of the ornamentation from the demolished buildings, some of which is now on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.

As a work of theater, the aesthetic, historical, and philosophical ideas cross-pollinate to produce a gripping experience. Nickel's photography, Chicago's history, the international community's interest in saving Sullivan's work, and sticky politics make this play a unique experience.

The color palette of this show - and several others running simultaneously in Chicago - is gray, beige, black, and white. Young actors in long gray full coats pose atop scaffolding, coats extended like wings, as slides of Sullivan's ornaments are projected on them. Architectural acting! Against the stark backstage, a motion-picture image of fire dances across a long white screen at one point (fire destroys a Sullivan building). And hard-edged acting comes into play - all business, no-nonsense - as if the actors poured into the world with a growl and a scowl.

At the Tony-Award winning Goodman Theatre, Charles Mee's horrifyingly funny Big Love, based on Aeschylus's "The Suppliant Women," has romance blossoming in the middle of mass murder as 50 sisters resist the marital advances of 50 brothers. The actors pack in high energy, gymnastic action, and in-your-face polemics. It's not that this show couldn't run elsewhere (it premièred at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky.), but at the Goodman its bite is as big as its bark.

At the Tony-Award winning Steppenwolf Theater, Robert William Sherwood's rough play Absolution fails to live up to the promise of its title. Three men gather 15 years after one of them committed a murder. Only one feels the gnaw of conscience. One tries to prove there is no God because justice is arbitrary. The existentialists already covered this ground with more wit and style.

Across town on the campus of the University of Chicago, the Court Theatre - dedicated to producing classic plays - proves that "classic" existentialism mocks human pretensions more than human existence. Eugene Ionesco's tragicomedy The Chairs speaks (wittily) of abject despair. But though it helps to put an inferior play like "Absolution" in perspective, "The Chairs" itself feels dated, out of sync. Still, the Court's worthy mission helps undergird the whole of Chicago's vibrant theater scene.