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Our time and place
Madison's 2007-08 theater season offers insight into the present moment
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Credit:Sarah Perry-Stout

To some, theater is becoming the last reserve of "family entertainment" in the worst sense of the word. People flock to productions of You Can't Take It With You or Harvey because they are little time-machine cocoons where the nasty influences of the 21st century won't intrude. They're not avoiding corrupt-to-the-core politicians or impending environmental disasters, mind you. They mostly are fleeing sex, violence or the f-word.

But that doesn't seem to be the case in Madison, does it? For a medium-sized community - one that can't support several equity theater groups - there is an enviable assortment of challenging and interesting plays on tap for the 2007-08 season. In fact, the lineup is impressive in all sorts of ways.

At a time when theaters have a hard time selling anything unfamiliar, Madison continues to host world-premiere productions and new-play festivals. If a troupe doesn't exist exclusively to create new plays (like Broom Street Theater and TAPIT/new works), it has made a new-play festival a part of its mission and its season (Madison Rep, Mercury Players and StageQ).

Theaters here are obviously taking their responsibility to create and produce brand new work seriously. And that's not just good news for writers. It means that theatergoers will have an opportunity to see works that engage the world of today - plays created in this moment. And they'll be able to see plays that are, in some way, about this place. A timeless classic or a nice off-Broadway import is great, but like politics, theater is and should be local.

Moreover, when Madison theaters turn to classics or recent well-known fare, they tend to make brave and ambitious choices. I've been perusing theater season schedules from around the country for a couple of decades now, and a city's typical lineup almost always consists of a few gems amidst a bunch of typical choices, along with a few eye-rollers. Madison's lineup is relatively free of clinkers.

But enough generalizations. Take a look at each theater's slate, and you'll see what I mean.

Madison Repertory Theatre

Under Richard Corley, the Madison Rep is continuing its remarkable growth and redefinition. As befits a flagship theater company, the Rep's season is a blend of old and new plays that relates strongly to the here and now.

The highlight should be the world premiere of Eric Simonson's Lombardi/The Only Thing (Nov. 9), a meditation on the life, times and philosophy of Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. Simonson is a Wisconsin native who has gone on to become a company member at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, and who won a 2006 Oscar for his short documentary about radio pioneer Norman Corwin. Given the Madison Rep's interest in creating plays with regional themes and artists, Lombardi/The Only Thing is a great choice.

The play was first read at the Rep's Madison New Play Festival, and that festival continues this year with readings of five new plays from playwrights both local and international (Oct. 20).

The contemporary slate also features Permanent Collection (March 7), a refreshingly complex analysis of racial politics by Philadelphia playwright Thomas Gibbons. Patrick Sims stars as a newly appointed director of an art gallery (suspiciously similar to Philadelphia's Barnes Foundation) who creates a firestorm of controversy when he decides to display the gallery's impressive collection of African art alongside the Matisses and Cezannes. In a lighter vein, the Rep will bring back the popular Muskie Love, a musical retelling of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.

To round out the season, the Rep tackles venerable stalwarts Death of a Salesman (Sept. 21) and The Diary of Anne Frank (Jan. 11), classic plays in the best sense of the word. Despite their familiarity, they always offer fresh insights about the contemporary world.

University Theatre

Last year, the UT offered an eclectic blend: Chekhov, Restoration drama, Beckett and the Broadway hit Urinetown. But this year it's sticking to the 20th and 21st century, including early works by the reigning deans of American and British playwriting, David Mamet and Tom Stoppard. The season starts with The Water Engine (Sept. 28), an early Mamet radio play that will be staged in the Hemsley Theatre and broadcast on Wisconsin Public Radio. Next up is Stoppard's hyperactive and rarely performed comedy On the Razzle (Oct. 19). While Stoppard has recently been enamored of 19th-century Russian intellectuals, this play showcases wit over philosophy, proving that Stoppard's unparalleled verbal dexterity can be more romp than rumination.

In midseason, two graduate student projects (presented in repertory) dig into recent, more unfamiliar work. John Beluso was confined to a wheelchair for most of his 36 years, and he wrote courageous and probing plays about people with disabilities. A Nervous Smile (Nov. 15), the last play he completed before his death in 2006, is one of his best. A portrait of two parents who are each caring for a disabled child, it's a play of devastating honesty. Yellowman (Nov. 15), by Dael Orlandersmith, is a celebrated two-character play that offers an unflinching look at the deepest questions of American racism.

One of Chicago's finest directors - Derrick Sanders, artistic director of Congo Square Theater - will come north to direct UT's production of The Bluest Eye (Feb. 29), Lydia Diamond's beautiful adaptation of Toni Morrison's bleak but richly poetic novel. The theater's commitment to children's theater (or "all-ages theater," as it is often called) continues with Dragonwings (March 29), Laurence Yep's drama about a boy and his father living in San Francisco at the time of the great earthquake of 1906. And the UT wraps up its season with Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire (April 18), a formidable challenge for director Norma Saldivar and the UW actors.

Strollers Theater

For the last few years, Strollers has offered mainstream seasons with a surprise or two. This year, the ambitious ace-in-the-hole is Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore (March 13), a blood-soaked satire of political violence that is McDonagh's most outrageous play to date. Hardly akin to mindless exercises in gore like Saw or Hostel, this story of an Irish Republican Army soldier run amok is as trenchant as ever, given America's increasing coziness with "alternative forms" of coercion.

The choice of Yasmina Reza's hit comedy Art (Sept. 6) is also timely, given the art market's recent explosion. This tale of three guys and a painting keeps the canvas clear of blood spatters, but the barbs are still sharp and the satire is dead on.

There's more sweetness in two other Strollers comedies. Beth Henley's The Miss Firecracker Contest (May 14) is a Southern-fried "get-me-out-of-this-town" play with lots of quirky characters. And Michael Frayn's hilarious Noises Off (Jan. 10) is one of the best (and most daunting) backstage comedies ever written. On the page, it's not so much a play as a flow chart, demanding crackerjack timing of its cast and crew.

To round out the season, there's Chekhov's beautiful (and again challenging) Uncle Vanya (Nov. 1), an autumnal reflection on life, work and the importance of keeping the samovar warm.

Mercury Players Theatre

In the grand moral compass of modern life, how close does imagining a grisly murder - imagining it in vivid detail - place you to the act of murder itself? Martin McDonagh's other recent play, The Pillowman (Jan. 18), examines the nature of art and imagination with the same grisly glee as Lieutenant's take on war and politics. When a series of murders start resembling an author's collection of horror stories, he's brought in for questioning, and McDonagh's wonderfully twisted theatrical sense ups the ante with every scene. With The Lieutenant of Inishmore, it's a potent doubleheader.

And speaking of potent, Mercury opens its season with the terrifically campy Reefer Madness: The Musical (Sept. 7). Based on the classically bad 1937 scare film, it's had a solid life in various venues since it was first staged in Los Angeles in 1998 (its off-Broadway debut was cut short by 9/11, but Showtime made it into a movie in 2005).

There's gender-bending without camp in Jeffrey Hatcher's The Compleat Female Stage Beauty (April 11), an insightful and deliciously bawdy examination of gender identity. It's based on the true story of Edward Kynaston, famous for playing Shakespearean women roles; he faced considerable professional and personal struggles when women were finally allowed onstage.

Mercury's season also includes Mercury Rising, its annual play competition, and two editions of its famous Blitz, where artists have only 24 hours to write and stage new plays.

StageQ

Anyone who's seen I Hate Hamlet or Jeffrey knows that Paul Rudnick is one of the funniest playwrights around. But who knew he could write an epic comedy that intertwines the stories of a 1940s Texas teenager and the life of King Ludwig of Bavaria? Rudnick's Valhalla (Oct. 5) isn't necessarily the best play he's written, but it's certainly the most ambitious, and it's still filled with Rudnick's signature sense of the quirky and the campy.

There's also a good dose of camp to be found in Patricia Kane's Pulp (March 7), a musical reimagining of lesbian paperback fiction of the 1950s that's filled with smoky bars, drag kings and Barbara Stanwyck idolatry. Jane Anderson's Looking for Normal (Feb. 7) offers a little more serious examination of gender identity in its story of a church-going Midwestern couple who discover their heterosexual marriage isn't what it seemed. StageQ closes its season with its annual festival of Queer Shorts (June 12).

The Rest

And there's more. Broom Street Theater's schedule includes Brian Wild's Tales for Another Millennium (Nov. 9) just in time for the holidays. The last installment of a biblical fire-and-brimstone trilogy, it finds Satan looking to boost the membership in hell.

CTM Madison Family Theatre Company offers its annual version of A Christmas Carol (Dec. 14), with the charming Robert Spencer as that old coot Scrooge. It also stages the inspiring Mexican immigrant drama Esperanza Rising (April 4). TAPIT/new works starts its season with Break a Leg! (Nov.15), a cabaret featuring five guest theater groups.

It's also worth keeping an eye on Encore Studio for the Performing Arts, which will feature its ensemble of disabled actors; Four Seasons Theatre and Music Theatre of Madison, which will offer a slate of musicals; WhoopDeDoo Productions, which will present its brand of interactive theater for those who aren't content to just sit back in the dark and watch; and the troubled Madison Theatre Guild, which just announced productions of The Laramie Project, Wit and Into the Woods.

So to quote Mulder and Scully, "they're out there": homicidal Irish terrorists, disaffected Russians, teens turned zombies by the evil weed, and old coach Lombardi himself. All that's left is for you to buy your ticket and get to the show on time. I'll see you at intermission.

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