It was the best of times, it was the suckiest of times.
With American theater these days it's hard to really tell. Broadway is booming. Audiences have flocked to the Pulitzer Prize-winning, 3½-hour August: Osage County, which has renewed many a cynic's faith in the oldest (arts) profession. Chicago, the incubator of Tracy Letts' play (it's a Steppenwolf Theatre production), is hosting big musicals for three-year runs, and many are proclaiming that our Midwestern neighbor is the true center of the American stage.
In Madison, though, as in other smaller American cities, the picture isn't as rosy. Even Richard Corley's modestly adjusted ambitions (ratcheted down from the sky-high hopes he brought to the job in 2002), proved too much for the Madison Repertory Theatre board, and he left as artistic director this past April. The departure has taken some of the luster out of the Rep's 40th anniversary season, but it is still forging ahead.
The Rep's move seemed to find echoes in other area theaters. After some bold programming moves last season (The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Pillowman) Madison's smaller theaters are offering more cautious seasons. The Madison Theatre Guild is recovering from its own crisis from last year, and only limited information on their season is available. And while one could argue that all esthetics are local, the theaters here are reflecting national trends, as performing artists try to find ways to make you leave your iPods, TiVos and YouTube's behind and venture out into the big, bad world to sit next to strangers and watch some live human beings tell a story right in front of you. And without CGI.
Still, for those who want to look beyond the Hollywood blockbuster and Internet 2.0, there is plenty this season to sink your teeth into.
At the Madison Rep, a vestige of Corley's ambitions remains on the season calendar, primarily in the guise of The Greeks, John Barton and Kenneth Cavender's epic adaptation of the fall of Troy and Agamemnon's series of bummers that follow. Originally presented in a 12-hour version at the Royal Shakespeare Company, subsequent versions have been a pick-and-choose affair, and the Rep will cull a sort of Greek greatest hits to tell the story, emphasizing the tragic cost of war and its aftermath. The production is a collaboration with University Theatre, and will feature several actors and designers from the program. Tom Blair, a former company member at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater and specialist in the visceral and powerful Suzuki method, will direct. And I'm sure they are hoping the new president-elect is listening.
Not quite as epic but still ambitious is the season closer, My Fair Lady, one of the canon's loverliest musicals, which has lately been revived in a scaled-down version featuring onstage piano. The rest of the season has a decidedly Midwest flavor: William Inge's Bus Stop, set in a Kansas City diner, with a cowboy and a showgirl en route to Montana. And - a nice companion piece - Sam Shepard's True West, a cowboy tale of a different sort that is a consistent favorite with both audiences and actors. The season opens with the one-man tour de force Fully Committed, Becky Mode's very popular tale of life in a Big Apple restaurant.
The Greeks are elsewhere in town this season. University Theatre will feature The Love of the Nightingale, Timberlake Wertenbaker's play inspired by the Greek myth of the rape of Philomela. A feminist spin on male aggression and sisterly revenge, it's directed by MFA candidate Talish Barrow. There'll be more battling of the sexes in UT's other classical offering, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, a perennial favorite directed by Norma Saldivar.
The UT's season opener features battles of another sort, and an interesting (and continuing) collaboration between the theater and Wisconsin Public Radio. Norman Gilliland, who hosts WPR's popular "Old Time Radio Drama" series, will be part of the acting company for a stage version of Mercury Players' War of the Worlds, the notorious radio broadcast from Halloween night, 1938. The play will be broadcast live on WPR on Oct. 4.
Politics - sexual and otherwise - figure, um, high in the UT's season finale, Hair: The American Tribal Love Rock Musical, directed by UW alum and multiple Tony nominee Andre De Shields, who certainly knows his way around a Broadway musical - particularly this one: His first professional job was in the Chicago production.
Children's theater plays a prominent role in Madison's theater universe this season. The UT continues its connection with Dutch artists in a production of Falling Girls, by Moniek Merkx, a pioneering Dutch theater artist known for breaking down barriers between the stage and audiences.
Family fare is always the focus of the Children's Theater of Madison. This year's big event is a piece by American Players Theatre stalwart James DeVita. Looking Glass Land is DeVita's take on Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass. CTM's version of A Christmas Carol will return, of course, and the spring production is Wesley Middleton's Degas' Little Dancer, in which a Chicago teenager travels back in time to become a model for one of Degas' most famous sculptures.
Elsewhere in the city, the Overture Center's children's theater series continues to grow. While some shows are obvious attempts to cash in on popular children's books (Magic Tree House: The Musical), others offer work by some of the most inventive theater artists from around the world.
Puppets and masks are a big part of the season. Don't miss Scotland's Visible Fictions performing the story of Jason and the Argonauts with G.I. Joe dolls. Or the Mexican troupe Marionetas de la Esquina performing A Moon Between Two Houses. The Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia is renowned for their inventive puppetry, and should imbue a new sense of magic to the familiar stories Goodnight, Moon and The Runaway Bunny. Finally, the Faustwork Mask Theatre's performance, The Mask Messenger, will quite simply change the way you think about theater.
Theater at the Overture isn't all kids stuff, even though furry puppets are involved. The Broadway musical Avenue Q might be a little small-scale for the cavernous Overture Hall (it played Broadway in the Golden Theatre, which seats around 800), but it is anything but dainty. It may seem like Avenue Q is just a few blocks from Sesame Street, but these puppets have sex, cheer Internet porn and live, hilariously, in a very adult world.
Some of Overture's "Broadway" offerings are moldy perennials like Jesus Christ Superstar or The Wizard of Oz, but the season also includes two terrific shows from recent seasons. The Drowsy Chaperone is an ebullient celebration of Broadway's Golden Age - the one with top hats and tap shoes. And John Doyle's brilliant restaging of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd is sure to be one of the most inventive and harrowing musicals you've seen in a long time.
If you're looking for Broadway on a more manageable scale, the Mercury Players Theatre kicks off with The Full Monty, a fitting lift-off for their very adult-oriented season. Whether or not the working-class Brits of this show actually take it all off, it will still be the tamest show of the Mercury season. Later in the season, the Merc's will feature a workshop production of local playwright Douglas Holtz's Tearoom Tango, and we're not talking about scones and marmalade. Holtz's thriller casts a peepholed eye on the world of men's room sex. Later in the season, Mercury collaborates with Stage Q on two productions: Cloud 9, Caryl Churchill's gender-bending comedy about empire and matters of the heart; and Ry Herman's Vamp, a girl-meets-Goth comedy with supernatural overtones.
In addition to its work with Mercury, Stage Q sticks it to the holidays, offering queer variations of a Dickens classic (A Queer Carol) and a dysfunctional, schizoid Father Christmas (Seven Santas) courtesy of Jeff Goode (The Eight Reindeer Monologues). Stage Q will also offer its annual Queer Shorts festival of one-act plays in the spring.
The tough-as-nails Broom Street Theater is still producing a slate of brand-new work. Heather Ranken's Shiny Things explores living with attention deficit disorder. Brian Wild's Run, Faggot, Run, just in time for the election, asks the provocative question: What if we elected a closeted gay man to the presidency? And Kathie Rasmussen's Dancing With My Other explores the life and relationships of an ex-convict.
Donna Peckett and Danielle Dresden's TAPIT/new works Ensemble Theater will offer Mangia, Mangia - Family, Food and Life in the Greenbush in the late fall. And it will explore the world of spin with Tear Up the Front Page in October.
At other smaller venues around town, last year's financial problems seem to have delayed season planning. Strollers Theatre and Madison Theatre Guild both nearly closed last season, and phone calls, emails and Google searches failed to find the announcement of a full 2008-09 season. Strollers will spend the fall in worlds of indecision - at least on stage. It opens with John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, A Parable, a powerful play about truth in an uncertain age, and continues with Hamlet, the story of the crowned prince of doubters. Madison Theatre Guild stages a revival of David Mamet's The Duck Variations in August, but that's as far as their horizon lies right now.
So it continues to be a tough time for the theater world, and tough economic times ahead will only make things harder. To keep the lights lit and the emotions flowing, theaters depend on you. So blow up your TV, throw away your iPods, cut your cables and get out to a local theater. You'll be glad you did.
Correction: Strollers Theatre's problems last season were managerial, not financial, and did not affect planning for the new season. Strollers' 2008-09 season consists of Doubt: A Parable, Hamlet, Apartment 3A, Love Is in the Air, and The Little Dog Laughed. Madison Theatre Guild's season, also planned, is The Duck Variations, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Over the River and Through the Woods, Side By Side With Sondheim and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.