Center Stage announces new season

THEATER

April 29, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Legacies and inheritance will be recurring themes in the 2004-2005 season at Center Stage. The six-play lineup ranges from the American premiere of Elmina's Kitchen, a British drama about the effect of violence on three generations of West Indian men, to Arthur Miller's The Price, in which two estranged brothers reunite to dispose of their late father's possessions.

The legacy theme is described by resident dramaturg Gavin Witt as "a nice carry-over from this season, which featured the theme of parents and children."

The notion of creating a legacy also relates to a new initiative Center Stage will launch next season called GenNext. Aimed at widening the theater's appeal to young adults, "it has to become part of the body politic of the theater," says artistic director Irene Lewis.

"The young value the holistic experience at least as much as what is on stage," she adds, mentioning ideas under consideration such as designating a bar for the 25-35-year-old set and devoting a series of First Look staged readings to works by young writers.

Young members of the audience will certainly see many characters their own age on stage next season, whether the performers are singing rock songs in the musical version of Two Gentlemen of Verona or discovering that the family business isn't exactly pure in The Voysey Inheritance.

Although specific dates have not yet been assigned, here's the lineup, in order of performance:

Lady Windermere's Fan, by Oscar Wilde. Lewis, who will direct this season opener, says she finds Wilde's comedy about a mother's sacrifice for her daughter "highly emotional." Part social commentary and part romantic thriller, the play "explores the ethics of marriage -- a society driven by shame and scandal in a way that isn't irrelevant today," says dramaturg Witt.

The Price, by Miller. The first Miller play at Center Stage in 30 years is "well overdue," according to Witt. He describes Miller's account of brothers -- a policeman and doctor -- as "a study of character and capitalism" as well as "a juicy tour de force of acting."

Elmina's Kitchen, by Kwame Kwei-Armah. Winner of Britain's 2003 Evening Standard Award for most promising playwright, Kwei-Armah's multigenerational, inner-city London drama premiered at the Royal National Theatre last season. "It packs a real wallop," says Lewis, who is hoping associate artist Marion McClinton will direct.

Two Gentlemen of Verona, book adapted from Shakespeare by John Guare and Mel Shapiro; lyrics by Guare; music by Galt MacDermot. Lewis will direct this 1972 Tony Award winner with music by the composer of Hair. "It's this incredibly multicultural explosion," says Witt. "There's rumba and samba and reggae and rock and blues. It's expansively American."

Permanent Collection, by Thomas Gibbons. Inspired by controversies at Philadelphia's Barnes Foundation in the 1990s, this drama explores "a topic that no one has gone near -- race and art," says Lewis. The play, which debuted in Philadelphia in October, received a staged reading at Center Stage as part of this season's First Look series.

The Voysey Inheritance, by Harley Granville Barker. A young lawyer discovers his fortune is based on generations of financial malfeasance in this play by George Bernard Shaw's contemporary and rival. Though the play was written in 1905, its examination of business ethics has a ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy.

Overall, says Witt, Center Stage's 2004-2005 fare represents "playwrights who fearlessly throw in our face issues that may be uncomfortable, but are of their moment and of ours."

Six-play subscriptions range from $60 to $300 and go on sale May 1. Call 410-332-0033.

A tighter `Tom Sawyer'

A Broadway musical about Tom Sawyer must have seemed like a good idea -- especially after the success of the Huckleberry Finn musical, Big River. But The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, with a book by Washington-based playwright Ken Ludwig and a score by country songwriter Don Schlitz ("The Gambler"), closed after only a few weeks on Broadway in 2001.

Lately, however, the show has found new life in children's theaters, such as the local Pumpkin Theatre, where director/choreographer Todd Pearthree has staged a Cliffs Notes-style one-hour version.

The production won't convince you that the show deserved better on Broadway, but the swift-moving adaptation does hit the high points of Mark Twain's story. Twain, of course, was not all sweetness and light, and the high points -- many concerning evil Injun Joe -- involve some violence. This didn't faze the totally absorbed 4-year-old who accompanied me, but the knife-play did upset some tots (and their folks).

Such caveats aside, director Pearthree does a lovely job staging the ensemble numbers, particularly "Ain't Life Fine," which incorporates such children's games as jump rope and hopscotch.

In the title role, curly-haired Josh Siems brings a countrified vibrato to Schlitz's catchy tunes; Nina Kauffman displays sweetness in her acting and singing as Tom's girlfriend, Becky Thatcher; and Kathryn Falcone and Kelli Danaker exude vocal richness and heart as Tom's aunt and teacher, respectively.

Chris Graybill and David Gregory, however, do little to keep villainous Muff Potter and Injun Joe from being mere caricatures. It's a problem that, like the production as a whole, might be ameliorated by an abridging job that was more artful and less schematic.

Pumpkin Theatre performs at the Hannah More Arts Center at St. Timothy's School for Girls, 8400 Greenspring Ave., Stevenson. Show times are 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $10. For more information, call 410-828-1814.

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