Theatre Outback expands repertoire to accommodate unexpected success

April 09, 1993|By Patrick Hickerson | Patrick Hickerson,Contributing Writer

Who would have thought that in its inaugural season, performances at Howard Community College's Theatre Outback would be a hot ticket?

Certainly not its producing director, Valerie Costantini, who is also the humanities division chairwoman at HCC.

"We estimated selling 50 seats a night," she said. "Well, we have practically sold out every show."

In fact, her drama department was off by a factor of three. The 150-seat venue could not accommodate the demand for "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune" earlier this year and turned away 70 people.

What the Theatre Outback offers is more intimacy than the 420-seat Smith Theatre. It also provides space for the controversial. The trio of productions for the 1992-93 season were "Talley's Folly," "Frankie and Johnny" and its current effort "Aunt Dan and Lemon."

Two of the plays carried a disclaimer in mailings that the performances involved "mature themes."

The success of the theater will mean that next season's schedule will add a fourth play, with each production lasting three weekends.

Adding a play would be the only way to satisfy the public's thirst for the off-beat and the unconventional, since installing more seats would defeat its design for intimate performances.

The stage is not only for professional productions. It also serves as a classroom for drama students, location for college preparatory classes and rehearsal hall for works in the Theatre Outback and the Smith Theatre.

The final two performances of the Outback's season, "Aunt Dan and Lemon," will take place today and tomorrow with tickets still available for both shows.

Mrs. Costantini, who also plays Aunt Dan, noted that in "Frankie and Johnny," where she played Frankie, the audience was able to experience smells such as hand cream and frying omeletes that wouldn't have had the impact in the less-intimate Smith Theatre.

"I particularly like the personal contact with the audience," she said.

Rather than less expressive, she characterized the acting technique for such a location as "more subtle."

Works by Sam Shepherd, Tina Howe and Tom Stoppard are cited by her as being well-suited for the Theatre Outback. Best suited for the small theater are works that involve a small cast with themes that delve into gray regions of the human condition.

"Certain kinds of literature won't work. 'Showboat,' for instance," she said.

"Aunt Dan and Lemon" would appear to be perfect for a theater of the unconventional. 'Showboat' it isn't.

The play, written by Wallace Shawn in the mid-1980s, can be described as akin to Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," with themes such as compassion and evil with a 20th century setting hitting the audience with its own diamond-tipped bullet. This isn't the sort of play that can be casually dissected on the drive home.

Wednesday's performance for the staff and faculty at Howard Community College featured a discussion after the play with Mrs. Costantini, director, Dawn Cooper Barnes and Stacey Starr, who plays the naiflike and disturbing Lemon.

A few in the audience linked what they saw in the play to contemporary events in Bosnia and Somalia, where evil and compassion appear in odd proportions. Some used adjectives such as "seductive" and "sucked in" to describe the play's effect.

The primary shock element of the play doesn't emanate from coarse language, violence and sexual situations -- the stuff of premium cable channels. It is more through the overarching theme of good and evil and the analogies used to convey it.

"It's not so much as about our diversity as our humanity," Ms. Cooper Barnes said.

With its success as a theater Mrs. Costantini finds a challenge in maintaining its interest through the sophomore year.

The four scheduled productions for the 1993-1994 season are "Marvin's Room," "Burn This," "Betrayal" and "Gianni Schicchi," which will be performed at the 1994 Columbia Festival of the Arts. The work was written by John Morogiello, who played the lead role in "The Foreigner" last year at the Smith Theatre.

Physical changes to the theater between seasons include plans for replacing the folding chairs with theater seating -- which received applause after Wednesday's performance -- adding a new floor and pushing one wall back for more space.

Mrs. Costantini estimated that it has taken $20,000 to turn this former cafeteria into a stage for performing arts, a "black box" as she calls it.

Howard Community College's Theatre Outback, in the Administration Building, will present "Aunt Dan and Lemon" at 8 p.m. today and tomorrow. Tickets are $8 general admission, with a $2 discount for students, senior citizens and groups of six or more. For tickets call the HCC Box Office at 964-4900.

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