Joe Mantegna — a seventh inning surprise

by Jonathan Abarbanel

JOE MANTEGNA made a surprise appearance at the Royal George Theatre last week, delighting the cast and audience of “Bleacher Bums,” the show about die-hard Cubs fans now enjoying a 25th anniversary production. Mantegna conceived and co-authored the show when he was a member of the Organic Theater Company, along with the then-unknown Dennis Franz.

Mantegna visited with the cast and performed the nightly guest cameo role, leading the audience in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” as part of the show’s Seventh Inning Stretch. Mantegna still has family in the Chicago area, and returns here for brief private visits several times a year.

Too bad Joe couldn’t stay awhile and play his old role in “Bleacher Bums” for a few weeks. The show could use a star-power boost. The 450-seat Royal George is an expensive theater, and “Bleacher Bums” has not been the hoped-for box office juggernaut. Since Gary Sandy left the show a month ago, it’s been doing light weeknight business, and has posted an August 29 closing date. The show has been heavily promoted in print advertising and through sports-oriented pop radio tie-ins, but that hasn’t translated into big ticket sales.

OVER $1 MILLION IN CITYARTS GRANTS were made to some 271 not-for-profit arts and cultural organizations. The grants always are modest ($1,300-$8,000), but help organizations draw other funders through the City’s “seal of approval.” CityArts grants are made in four ascending categories, based on the annual budget of the recipient organization. As always, a number of groups related to the film and broadcast industries received grants.

Those in the CityArts I category are: African American TV & Filmmakers ($1,300), Community Film Workshop ($1,600), Experimental Sound Studio ($1,600), Silent Film Society of Chicago ($1,900), Visual Arts Project ($1,600) and Women in the Director’s Chair ($1,600). In the CityArts II category, IFP/Chicago received $3,500.

Among recipients of CityArts III grants are: Chicago Classical Recording Foundation ($5,000), Chicago Filmmakers ($5,000), Cinema Chicago ($6,000), Community TV Network ($6,000) and Terra Nova Films, Inc. ($4,000). In the highest category, CityArts IV, industry recipients were CAN TV ($7,500), Facets Multimedia, Inc. ($7,500) and the WBEZ Alliance ($7,500).

CHICAGO WILL BE THE SITE of a gathering of 20 theatre company representatives July 16-23 for the biennial National Showcase of New Plays, presented by the National New Play Network. They will see workshop productions of 18 American plays, developed by theatres across the country; among them Chicago’s Steppenwolf and the famous Guthrie Theatre of Minneapolis. In a first-of-its-kind move, the powerhouse William Morris Agency is sending a scout from its New York literary department to the Showcase in hopes of finding a hot writer or two without representation.

The staged readings are open to the public at three venues, the Loop Theatre (8 E. Randolph), the Cultural Center Studio and Chicago Dramatists (1105 W. Chicago Ave.). The cost is a mere $5 a pop. The local producers of the Showcase are Prop Thtr Group and Chicago Dramatists. Among the donors who have helped support the National Showcase of New Plays are JoBe Cerny and Cerny/American Creative.

FUNNYMAN AARON FREELMAN has been lured back to the stage for the first time in years by the Prop Thtr Group, the small Off-Loop troupe. The famous fog-horn voiced Freeman has developed some dynamite new political monologues that he’s eager to perform prior to the November election. He’s promised to do several weeks of stand-up at Prop in the fall, precise dates TBA. (Freeman tried out some of his political diatribes at the recent Creatives for Kerry fund-raiser, playing before an appreciative audience of 250, who raised more than $20,000 for the Democratic presidential candidate.)

Prop recently opened its first-ever permanent home after 20 years of nomadic producing. The handsome two-theatre space at 3504 N. Elston will serve as home base not only for Prop shows, but for several other small Off-Loop companies.

Jonathan Abarbanel is theatre contributor for Chicago Public Radio, theatre editor of the weekly Windy City Times newspaper, and a featured columnist for Back Stage, the weekly national trade paper.