Theater People: Mefisto theater company puts down roots | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Theater People: Mefisto theater company puts down roots 

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Actor-director Weil Richmond quit New York's prestigious Circle in the Square Theatre School after one semester, walking out in the middle of a speech class after getting in a fight with the teacher. As Richmond gathered his things and headed for the front door, the teacher, who'd followed him into the hall, yelled "You'll never do anything in theater for the rest of your life!"

"I know it's a cliche, but that's the fire under my ass that got me going. I realized that I wanted to produce," says Richmond, a Chicago native, who soon went on to found his own theater company, Mefisto. This week, almost five years to the day from their New York debut, Mefisto will revive their inaugural production of The Boys Next Door, Tom Griffin's popular play about a house of mentally disabled men, at Chicago Dramatists.

Richmond was initially taken with the character Norman Bulansky when he saw a production of The Boys Next Door while an undergraduate at the University of Kansas. When he decided to get into producing, he immediately thought of the play, and recruited filmmaker Matthew von Waaden, a friend from college, to direct; Richmond played Bulansky. During their three years in New York, Mefisto produced 12 shows, most of which more or less adhered to the company's mission of bringing "little known or not often produced" works to the stage.

In June 2000, the company developed Eat the Runt, a comedy framed as a series of job interviews by first-time playwright Avery Crozier. Full of ambiguously named characters like "Chris" and "Pinky" and written without gender-specific pronouns, the play relaxed casting strictures to such a degree that Richmond and von Waaden decided to let the audience choose who'd play which part. Using an electronic voting system, audience members cast the show anew each night from an eight-member ensemble. Runt became Mefisto's signature production and an unexpected commercial success. After a ten-week run off Broadway at a 66-seat theater, they moved to a 290-seat space at American Place Theater in Times Square, where--after a few rocky months--the show turned a profit. By September 10, 2001, Runt was doing so well that they signed an eight-month extension on their lease.

"We were thrilled, and at that point we were going to start popping up productions in Chicago and LA and start spreading it around, opening in other cities," says Richmond. "On September 11, we woke up and it was a very different world."

The show closed for five days. When it reopened, audiences were drastically smaller, but Mefisto was still required to meet union salary and benefit requirements. "We asked if we could pay less for this amount of time and pay the rest on the back end," says Richmond, "but they weren't having any of that."

Richmond and his partners decided to move Mefisto to another city rather than allow their reserves to run dry and eventually force the company into bankruptcy. On October 7, 2001, Eat the Runt closed for good, and by early 2002 von Waaden, Richmond, and his brother Matthew, who by then had joined the group as a coproducer and business manager, had all moved to Chicago.

Initially they hoped to remount Eat the Runt as soon as possible, but after assessing the scene, they decided to wait. They've spent the last year and a half retrenching, with Richmond taking a day job as a trader. They've also tried to get a better sense of Chicago's theater community, scouting out space, hiring a publicist, and meeting with people from over 50 companies large and small. "We don't want to move into a new city and make the mistake of thinking we know it better than we do," says Richmond. "We don't want to fail." Rather than launching with a complicated, expensive production like Runt, they decided to kick off their Chicago residence by bringing back their first show. Richmond and original cast member Spike Black, who came out from New York for the run, direct.

"I remember sitting in the room five years ago, talking to the cast of The Boys Next Door, a little skinnier and probably with a little higher voice," says Richmond. "I was saying, 'OK guys, one day we're gonna be off Broadway and we're gonna do this.' And they're looking at their watches: 'Yeah, whatever.' And the people who stuck with us got that payoff. And we'll get back there again."

The Boys Next Door opens Wednesday, August 20, and runs through September 7 at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 and Sunday at 3; tickets are $25. For more information call 312-264-5441.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.


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