HCC troupe stakes its claim to quality theater by allying with actors union New season opens tonight

October 01, 1993|By Patrick Hickerson | Patrick Hickerson,Contributing Writer

As Howard Community College's performing arts season begins tonight, evidence mounts of its growth as a venue for professional repertoire theater.

The newly established Rep Stage Company, the resident professional company at the college, signed a contract in August with Actors' Equity Association, the 39,000-member national actors and stage managers union, allowing the company to cast Equity actors and stage managers for productions.

HCC is the first college in Maryland to offer a theater season with Equity members.

The agreement, called a small professional theater contract, states that each production at HCC must feature two Equity actors and a stage manager.

A recent visit to a "cattle call" in Washington convinced Valerie Costantini, producing director of Rep Stage Company and chair of HCC's Performing Arts Division, that gaining an agreement with Equity was necessary.

"I saw 750 actors audition for five days," she said. "The best ones were all Equity."

Kasi Campbell, general manager of the performing arts division at HCC and company manager for the Rep Stage Company, said the move toward Equity could be summed up in one word: "quality."

"By and far, if you want to get good acting, you have to go to Equity," she said.

Another addition this year is the Rep Stage Company, created to give the professional productions on campus an identity separate from the student theater. The group will perform six of the season's eight performances.

"Many people think a Howard Community College production is full of students," Mrs. Costantini said. But "anyone may audition here. This is a professional theater. Everyone is paid."

One of the casualties this season is the children's series, dropped after four years because it wasn't the money-raiser organizers hoped it would be.

But Ms. Campbell said that its withdrawal should help Candlelight Concert Society's performing arts series for children, which has introduced drama programs slanted toward middle school children.

The 150-seat Theatre Outback -- created last year for more intimate and controversial performances -- will have changes that should make it more accessible and enjoyable.

A third weekend of performances was added for some plays to accommodate the high demand for tickets. Mrs. Costantini said that 70 people were turned away last season for performances of "Frankie and Johnny."

Probably more important to some, the hard, cold, metal folding chairs have been replaced with padded ones.

The Outback opens the performing arts series tonight with Scott McPherson's "Marvin's Room." The comedy, acclaimed by Frank Rich of the New York Times and Clive Barnes of the New York Post, looks at how a family reacts when one of its members faces leukemia.

The work, first performed in 1990, is an interesting contrast to the life of Mr. McPherson, who died last year of complications from AIDS.

One prominent theme is love and care during adversity, either freely offered or compelled.

In the playwright's note to "Marvin's Room," Mr. McPherson wrote in early 1992 that his mother was his grandmother's chief care giver, and now, at 31, his lover and friends had AIDS and "the less sick caring for the more sick. At times, an unbelievably harsh fate is transcended by a simple act of love, by caring for another."

Mrs. Costantini plays the role of Bessie. She has previously performed in HCC performances of "The Glass Menagerie," "Frankie and Johnny" and "Aunt Dan and Lemon."

The two Equity actors are Jim Burton as the eccentric Dr. Wally and Vivienne Shub, an Ellicott City resident, in the role of Aunt Ruth. Mrs. Costantini calls Ms. Shub "the Helen Hayes of this area" from her work at Center Stage, Arena Stage and Olney Theatre.

Other surprises this year in the Theatre Outback's four-performance schedule are found in "Burn This" and "Gianni Schicchi."

"Burn This" will feature John Lescault and Bill Graham Jr., producing director of the Olney Theatre, who also teaches at HCC and who directed "The Foreigner" last year.

Mr. Graham, a Columbia resident, also directed Mr. Lescault in "The Tavern" earlier this year at Olney Theatre.

"He and Bill sharing the stage will be an interesting night," Ms. Campbell said.

"Gianni Schicchi," set to conclude the Theatre Outback series, was written by Laurel resident John Morogiello, who played the central role in "The Foreigner."

The play is a comedy based on the opera of the same name set in Renaissance Italy.

The Smith Theatre's slate of four performances reflect a true variety of work ranging from Dylan Thomas to Moliere to Hispanic dance to a gay musical.

"Under Milk Wood" opens the main stage series Oct. 29 and 30.

The Sherman Theatre Company of Cardiff, Wales, will perform as part of its first tour of America.

The play will be presented in English with Welsh dialects by eight actors who play more than 60 characters.

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