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Michael Shannon

Academy Award-nominated actor Michael Shannon is back in Chicago, performing in Simpatico at A Red Orchid Theatre. He joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm to chat about the Sam Shepard play, Boardwalk Empire, and what’s next. Read an interview with Simpatico director Dado, view a behind-the-scenes slideshow of Shannon's visit to our studios and watch his 2009 appearance on our show.

Courtesy of Dado This is the season finale for A Red Orchid’s 20th anniversary—why Simpatico?
We have never done a Sam Shepard play, and it was time to do some Shepard. This play is sort of perfect for where our ensemble is in our growth, and I think I can honestly say this is Mike Shannon’s favorite Shepard script.

Everyone in the play, except for one young character, is an ensemble member, which never happens. That really blew me away, because I happen to believe that they are the best actors in Chicago. Guy Van Swearingen curated this ensemble with exquisite care. He chose these people extremely carefully.

Did you speak with Sam Shepard while preparing for the play?
Mike Shannon talked to him, but I have not. We have also invited him to see the piece.

Why did you decide to direct this play? What drew you in?
One of the reasons the entire ensemble responded to this text in particular is because we are just a little younger than Shepard was when he wrote it. This play feels like Shepard issued himself the axiom of the disappearing narrative. It disappears more in every scene and all you’re left with are the relationships. So I was drawn to the feeling that even though the story of your life may not be so hot, when you get into these later decades (He was probably in his 50’s when he wrote Simpatico), the people who are still standing around you are (hopefully) what’s interesting.

What kind of an audience is Simpatico intended for?
I’ve seen every demographic here and they’ve all eaten it up. My own kids loved it, and they are 10 and 13. The writing is fantastic, the characters are interesting, and the play is hilarious. You’re going to need a glass of whiskey after you see it. 

What do you hope people take away from this show?
This play is a reversal of fortune. It’s one of those pieces of theater that shakes you down. I think you’re going to feel like you got frisked.

The play is described as a “tragic comedy?” Do you think it’s funny?
The characters are funny. Several of them have never met each other, so you’ve got that character-driven predicament. And some characters are pretending to be people they aren’t, or pretending they don’t know each other, when they actually do. There are several levels of discourse.

Boardwalk Empire star Michael Shannon co-founded A Red Orchid Theatre. What’s it like to have him back, performing on stage?
I’ve known Mike for a really long time. He’s pretty much a workaholic, in a good way. He makes room in his life for theater because that’s sort of how he cut his teeth. This place is our home and we have a powerful affinity for it. We have a powerful attachment to that kind of aesthetic and that kind of intensity.

Guy Van Swearingen co-stars in the play and is also a founding member—how do you describe the onstage presence he has with Shannon?
It’s a binary that is very tricky to navigate because they’ve known each other for a long time. I think it’s a test and it’s prickly, like anything. But I think they’re really happy to be working with each other.

A Red Orchid Theatre seats just 75 people. Does that intimate feel contribute to the success of the play at all?
It’s really intense. Mike is right there in front of you. They’re all just right there, so the piece can be overwhelming at times -- but not in a bad way.

This play originally opened in New York in November 1994. Did you make changes or did you stick to the original time period?
We stuck with the original time period. This play exists in a really interesting spot, where we were just starting to use cell phones but we didn’t really have the internet yet. The world is about to explode technologically. The characters know something is about to change, and that creates tension in the air.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

In this video from (which contains graphic content) Shannon reads an Email written by a sorority girl. Watch the video:


On Chicago Tonight in 2009, Shannon, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in the film Revolutionary Road, discussed his latest stage role here in Chicago. Check out the video:

Christine Hurley contributed to this report.