Theater company thrives in Columbia

Rep Stage troupe receives accolades, increases fan base

January 17, 1999|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

Nestled in the heart of Columbia, Rep Stage sits like a hidden jewel.

In its six years as a professional theater company, Rep Stage -- Howard Community College's theater company in-residence -- has seen its reputation flourish and its regional fan base grow.

Rep Stage productions are unlike what some theatergoers have come to expect of community theater: no sagging backdrops, overly melodramatic performances by amateur actors or kitschy revivals of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals.

Instead, a ticket to a Rep Stage show buys a couple of hours of risky, energetic, modern professional theater. As an equity theater company, Rep Stage mostly employs dedicated professional actors and backstage crew for each of its shows. Many of the company's principal organizers also teach at the college.

Think Rep Stage and think off-Broadway in the 'burbs.

"Word of mouth has been really strong about our theater," says Valerie Costantini, Rep Stage's founder and artistic director. "We have an eclectic group of people who come to see our shows, but they're mostly all folks who love theater who don't want to have to go to D.C. or Baltimore. They want to see it in their own back yard."

Even theatergoers who live in Washington and Baltimore are beginning to take notice of Rep Stage and are driving to Columbia for an evening of first-rate professional performances, says Toby Orenstein, owner of Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia and a local theater guru.

"Rep Stage is really at a point where every theater wants to be, in terms of quality," Orenstein says. "People who come to their shows know that they will always see a quality production, even if they don't like the script. As a patron, what everyone looks for is quality and not schlock.

"They've always been willing to take a risk," Orenstein says. "And they're real pros. That's the key. Anyone can just say, `I'm going to do a show.' It takes special people to have a sense of pride about their work and to push the envelope."

Rep Stage produces four or five shows a season in the 250-seat Smith Theatre and in the 100-seat Theatre Outback, both on HCC's campus.

The company also sponsors a summer actors' institute for teen-age and pre-teen actors, as well as one-day workshops for adult student actors throughout the year.

For the past two theater seasons, Rep Stage has received eight nominations for the Helen Hayes Award -- Washington's equivalent of Broadway's Tony Award -- for its productions of Arthur Miller's "Broken Glass," John Logan's "Never the Sinner" and Graham Greene's "Travels with My Aunt."

Tickets to Rep Stage shows -- dramatic plays, comedies and a few musicals -- have been selling out fast, thanks to word of mouth about the fine performances, modern sets and overall excellence of each production.

While Rep Stage has produced plays with name recognition (Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus," David Mamet's "Oleanna" and Christopher Hampton's "Dangerous Liaisons"), Costantini and Kasi Campbell, the company's assistant artistic director, often choose new plays that have never been produced or those that no one has likely heard of.

"We read a lot of less-than-wonderful plays," says Campbell. "But we find that people -- and critics -- are more open to things that they've never seen. When you're following a plot that you know very well because you've seen it a thousand times, you tend to be picky.

"But you can't really pick something apart if it's the first time you've experienced it," she says.

Rep Stage's next production, a seldom-performed play by Romulus Linney called "Ambrosio," is a Gothic potboiler about a Spanish Inquisition-era monk besieged with temptations.

The ambitious production will be set in a stark, modern stage, though the actors will perform in period costume.

Rep Stage's reputation for pushing the envelope has made it a favorite with actors, says Vincent Lancisi, artistic director of Everyman Theatre in Baltimore, another small regional equity theater that has co-produced four plays with Rep Stage, including a 1996 production of "Amadeus" and Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" last year.

"With professional actors and stage managers, you can see the difference in quality," Lancisi says. "Respect for [Rep Stage] in the arts community is definitely growing."

Much of that had to do with the Helen Hayes Award nominations.

"They were hugely important and let theatergoers know that there's a theater company to be recognized," Lancisi says.

After the nominations, Rep Stage more than doubled its subscription base to more than 800 season ticket holders.

Campbell says Rep Stage will continue to present plays that will challenge audiences but be accessible as well.

"We want everyone to find something here, not just the fur and pearls crowd," Campbell says. "People don't want to waste their entertainment money. At least here, they know they won't."

Pub Date: 1/17/99

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