Of all the young geniuses and oddballs who sprang from the cauldron of Chicago theatre in the 1970s, Stuart Gordon was meant to make the biggest noise. Instead, Gordon, who died March 17 in Los Angeles last week of multiple organ failure at 72, was affectionately remembered in obituaries outside Chicago as the director of such cult horror films as Re-Animator and Space Truckers.
For those of us who experienced—sometimes proudly survived—Gordon’s visceral, wildly original theatre productions, however, he was the force that first defined the untamable energy oversimplified later by the New York press as Steppenwolf’s “rock ’n’ roll theatre.” In retrospect, I think Gordon and his Organic Theater Company were that, but they were at least as genetically linked to comic books, Grand Guignol hyper-realism, and Monster Roster, the post-war imagist movement in the visual arts.
But retrospection doesn’t come close to my unforgettable memory of The Game Show, a shock I had in 1969, sometime around my introduction as a fledgling critic at the Chicago Tribune. This was the show’s Chicago premiere and Gordon’s debut in his hometown, which meant we had no guarantee that this would be merely a “performance” to be repeated the following night. It was, to this date, the scariest experience I ever had in the theatre.
I came, innocently enough, with my new then-husband, as well as his younger brother from Central Illinois and his even more wide-eyed date. At the door, seemingly at random, some of us were given ticket stubs with a mark, maybe an X, on them. By fluke, or perhaps nascent media savvy, I got an X. The structure was to be a live TV game show—itself an audacious idea back then—with contestants from the audience.
Soon the doors were locked (I remember chains) by ominous, muscular guards in uniforms. Before long, people were being beaten, stripped, bullied into submission, under the increasingly suspect assumption that surely it was only a show. When I was summoned to the stage, my theatre party began to worry. It was not that long since the ’68 convention, and it was increasingly a time when anything could happen. After all, they knew I wasn’t a plant. Maybe this was real.
We all got out alive, obviously. Less obviously, we learned later that the brutality and sadism were structured to stop only when someone in the real audience cried out “Stop!” That night, the brave person who dared to stand and say enough was enough happened to be my brother-in-law’s young date. It was a real-life lesson in fascism—that is, how much inhumanity will we permit as long as it’s happening to someone else.
And it was Chicago’s introduction to Gordon, already something of a legend at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, for a show called Peter Pan that ended with him and classmate Carolyn Purdy (soon to be Carolyn Purdy-Gordon) in jail. Andre De Shields, an Organic star long before he was a Broadway icon, has described his portrayal of Tiger Lily in that show as a version of the Black Panthers’ Huey Newton. The trip to Never Never Land was on acid, and the nude dancing women there got the show labeled “The Naked Peter Pan” forevermore.
I never did see his Pan. But the story of it impressed me enough that, years later, when a neighbor on the Hampton Jitney told me he had played Tinker Bell in Madison, it was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
What I did see of Gordon’s work, however, has stayed with me longer than much of the more celebrated theatre about which we hear so much. Joe Mantegna may be identified with fast-talking Mamet speak. But first he was making physical bursts of playground magic out of pure imagination with such other Organic regulars as Dennis Franz, Meshach Taylor, and Purdy-Gordon. I used to say I’d seen her naked more often than I’d seen any woman except myself.
Before there was the thriving Chicago theatre movement, there was what Variety called “the basement and belfry circuit,” then simply Off-Loop theatre. These companies were made by people not long out of college, who lived more or less in the same North Side neighborhoods and looked nothing like the dinner-theatre-and-road-show actors who, with a few conspicuous exceptions, dominated the city’s theatre in the ’60s.
Theatregoers in the ’70s must all have their favorite Organic memories. There was The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit (1973), based on Ray Bradbury’s gentle story of five Latinos (imagine the bad accents) and a dreamy white suit. Bleacher Bums (1977) made legends of the fans in the cheap seats at Wrigley Field. Perhaps best of all was Warp! (1971), a raucous, ingenious, and mythic three-part science-fiction living comic book that used corkscrews for ray guns and beat Star Wars by half a dozen years.
Deep in my bemused and sentimental heart, I treasure the day in 1973 when Gordon and company invited me to join them at a movie matinee. I can’t quite believe that I went. The attraction that day was Theatre of Blood, in which Vincent Price hams it up as a is classic actor who murders each of his critics in the styles of Shakespeare plays. Tucked away in Gordon’s jacket were fake knives and plenty of stage blood—a special surprise for me at the end.
I moved to New York in 1980. Not long after, the Gordons went to Los Angeles—surely, I assumed to out-Lucas and out-Spielberg them all. Many honor Gordon for his much-loved horror films. But in those formative and astounding years in Chicago theatre, the force was with him.
Linda Winer was theatre critic at Newsday from 1987 to 2017 and at the Chicago Tribune from 1969 to 1980.