From left to right:Tim Sniffen, Megan Wilkins, Dana Quercioli,… (Richard Anderson, Handout )
The theme of Center Stage's 2011-2012 season might be summed up as rhythm — from the distinctive beat of "Jazz," a world premiere adapted from the Toni Morrison novel of that name, to the percussive profanity of David Mamet's "American Buffalo"; from the improvised patter of Second City to the intricate rhymes and melodic pulse of Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods."
"We're willing not to play it safe," said Center Stage resident dramaturg Gavin Witt, who helped plan the season with what he described as "a think tank" of senior management.
This is the first lineup in two decades not generated by Irene Lewis, who steps down as artistic director at the end of this season. The 2011-12 lineup was put into place before the naming of her successor was finalized; that successor, Kwame Kwei-Armah, will have his inaugural season in 2012-13.
"Irene, in her brusquely nurturing manner, wanted to throw us in the deep end," Witt said. "She didn't want it to be a lingering Irene season."
To some extent, though, the legacy of Lewis remains.
"There is no radical agenda," Witt said, "but a continuity of the diversity and risk-taking that Irene started. There will still be works that tell stories of the African-American experience. There will still be theater that asks questions but doesn't have easy solutions. We're not in the business of reassurance."
The premiere of "Jazz" in January 2012 fits particularly well with those company traditions. Marion McClinton, a longtime associate artist at Center Stage, is doing the adaptation and will direct as well. The novel about love and loss in 1920s Harlem, was written in a distinctive literary style suggestive of jazz itself; McClinton aims to preserve that style.
"It will be a radical new fusion of live music with story-telling," Witt said. "It's a very big project for us. We're inviting the audience to go on a journey."
Opening Sept. 28 will be a production of a classic from 1775, Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The Rivals," a comedy of manners that gave birth to the term "malapropism."
"I wanted to launch the season with some real sparkle," Witt said, "and this is a piece that continues to resonate with youthful spirit."
"The Rivals" will be directed by David Schweizer, a frequent Center Stage collaborator who directed the production of "Snow Falling on Cedars" currently running.
"One thing that I absorbed from Irene, and that audiences have embraced here, is that each piece should be as different as possible from the works around it," Witt said. "So in between 'Rivals' and 'Jazz' will be 'American Buffalo' opening in November."
Mamet's tale of would-be smalltime crooks trying to get ahead and ending up in a violent clash is "a timely play about dire circumstances," Witt said. "Mamet's language, as profane as it is, is literally, as well as figuratively, poetry. He gives you cursing in iambic pentameter."
Scheduled to open in late January is Martin McDonagh's "A Skull in Connemara," directed by BJ Jones. The playwright, whose works center on Ireland and some very unusual characters, has enjoyed considerable success with "The Cripple of Inishmaan," "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" and others.
Witt tried for his nine years with the company to interest Lewis in presenting one of McDonagh's plays.
"Irene is part Irish," Witt said, "and she was not in favor. He does have a totally oddball version of Ireland, but he delights in language and has a mastery of storytelling. In 'A Skull in Connemara,' a man can't let go of his wife's death, which he may be responsible for. Love across time haunts the play. It's a murder mystery and a crime drama, with a glorious sense of the macabre."
In March 2012, Center Stage notes the 25th anniversary of "Into the Woods," Sondheim's incisive look at the darker side of fairy tales. A new staging will be co-produced with Connecticut's Westport County Playhouse, where Mark Lamos is artistic director. He'll direct this revival for both companies.
"I think it is easier for audiences to deal with [the musical] now," Lamos said. "The extraordinary complexity of Steve's writing was perhaps a bit daunting when [the show] first opened. It's so complex, so stuffed with gorgeous ideas."
Lamos, who directed Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" at Center Stage in 2008, "has a sense of the exquisite," Witt said. "He paints marvelous stage pictures."
To kick things off, The Second City returns in September with another take on Charm City. This follows the exceptionally popular Baltimore-themed show that the improvisatory troupe offered to packed houses at Center Stage for weeks this season.
"It will have a new set," Witt said. "The one for this season has already been sent off to a community college for use in a 'Hairspray' production. The writers will probably do another, shorter immersion here for a couple weeks before creating the show, which will be totally new, expect for maybe one piece. It will again be a mix of written material, musical numbers and improv."
A sixth production will be announced later. Returning next season will be Play Labs (readings of works-in-progress) and the popular Cabaret Series.
For more information on Center Stage's 2011-2012 season, call 410-332-0033 or go to centerstage.org.