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Playtime! Madison theater troupes offer all sorts of fun in 2013-14

Credit:Alexei Vella

Madison's 2013-14 theater season offers an incredibly diverse selection of shows. It's impossible to describe them all in a single phrase, but one thing is clear: This art form continues to thrive in Madison.

You'll find beloved stories by writers like Tennessee Williams and hot-off-the-press plays penned by local folks. There are shows celebrating strong women and ones that closely examine the interior space of relationships. A few boast especially intriguing plots. And there's lots and lots of singing this season, in shows for every taste.

Kids will be delighted by shows just for them. Based on stories they already know and love, productions by Children's Theater of Madison promise to feel familiar and exciting at the same time.

What you see here is only a partial list of season highlights. Follow as companies finalize their offerings.

Promising premises

A couple of shows have me hooked already with their fascinating plots. Madison Theatre Guild's dark, funny Dead Man's Cell Phone (Feb. 28-March 15) is one of them. When a woman encounters an abandoned cell phone that's ringing, she answers it. A strange series of events unfolds, shining light on technology's ability to enlarge our worlds and also isolate us.

The main character in Strollers Theatre's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (Jan. 31-Feb. 22) is, as you might have guessed, a tiger. When U.S. troops come to guard a zoo in war-torn Iraq, the animal bites off a soldier's hand and is shot. It dies slowly but appears as a ghost as the war rages on.

Strong women

Strollers Theatre's The Madwoman of Chaillot (Aug. 30-Sept. 21) highlights resilient, powerful women. The leading lady, Countess Aurelia, is considered mad by some, but really she's an idealist. To her, the world's a beautiful place. But when a group of corrupt businessmen begin plotting to dig up the streets of Paris in search of oil, her worldview shifts, and she, along with a ragtag group of friends, decides to fight back.

Lavinia, to be produced by Madison Theatre Guild, tells the story of Lavinia Goodell, who was denied admission to the bar of Wisconsin's Supreme Court in 1876. The reason? Her gender. The play follows Goodell through challenges and triumphs as she fights for equality.

Humor and history converge in StageQ's 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche (March 28-April 12). The Susan B. Anthony Society for the Sisters of Gertrude Stein is hosting its yearly quiche breakfast. It's the 1950s, and things are so repressed that the five society members don't even realize they are lesbians until they are forced into a fallout shelter together.

Known for producing work written and directed by women, Kathie Rasmussen Women's Theatre presents Crimes of the Heart with Madison Theatre Guild (Oct. 11-19). Three sisters reunite after one of them shoots her abusive husband. Each sister has her own "crimes of the heart" to face as the trio deal with tragedies from their past.

Or (March 27-April 13), produced by Forward Theater Company, is set in 1666 Restoration England and brings one night of Aphra Behn's life to the stage. In this historical romp, Behn, the first professional female playwright, has just been set free from prison. Her new play is on the verge of success, her love life rivals a soap opera, and she might just be able to stop a plot to kill the king.

Relationship drama

Looking for something character-driven? Shows like Forward Theater's Sons of the Prophet (Nov. 7-24) offer complex people facing complicated situations. After their father dies in an accident, two Lebanese-American brothers are left to care for their ailing uncle. Insightful and compassionate, this play examines humanity's resilience and inclination toward hope.

Hope fades for a struggling family in University Theatre's Dancing at Lughnasa (Oct. 4-19). The son has returned home from missionary work in Africa and seems to have lost his religion. Meanwhile, the five unmarried sisters struggle personally and financially. As the summer ends, things are not getting better.

A seemingly perfect family is the subject of Strollers Theatre's The Pain and the Itch (Dec. 6-21). What really happens behind closed doors in those "perfect" families? This satire doesn't hold back as it examines America's upper middle class.

Time Stands Still (June 19-28), produced by the Bricks Theatre, focuses on the relationships of two couples. Written by Pulitzer Prize winner Donald Margulies, this contemporary play has received critical acclaim for its complex characters and organic storytelling.

Callen Harty's new Broom Street Theater production, Triggered (Sept. 20-Oct. 12), takes a look at gun violence through characters affected by a shooting. The killer's father and the victim's mother are among the perspectives presented.

Mercury Players Theatre's Skin Tight (May 9-24) is a passionate look at two lovers, incorporating internal and external realities of their relationship. Using dance, poetry and wrestling, this show aims to captivate audiences with plenty of energy and movement.

Follow me to Tennessee

The 2013-14 season offers at least three nods to Tennessee Williams. In Madison Theatre Guild's season opener, The Night of the Iguana (Sept. 20-Oct. 5), a troubled former minister plays tour guide to a busload of women on holiday in Mexico. It's an excellent choice, lusty and thought-provoking. Then University Theatre's Summer and Smoke (Nov. 1-16) chronicles a tumultuous romantic relationship between a minister's daughter and the young doctor who lives next door.

In spring, Williams' work will be included in Madison Theatre Guild's Shorts on the 2nd Floor (April 18-May 3), which also features works by Terence Rattigan, Robert Anderson and Alan Bennett.

Musically inclined

My must-see musical is Four Seasons Theatre's The Fantasticks, which arrives in December. Allegorical and magical, it's reportedly the world's longest-running musical. Featuring gorgeous music by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (not the "What's New, Pussycat?" Tom Jones, in case you were wondering), the show is in good hands with this excellent company.

In March, Four Seasons honors female powerhouses of musical theater with Great American Songbook -- Great Dames: Leading Ladies of Stage and Screen. Its August 2014 production of Kiss Me, Kate will be the first show in a newly renovated Wisconsin Union Theater. You'll also hear a song or two from Kiss in Madison Theatre Guild's Red, Hot and Cole! (Jan. 10-25), which celebrates songwriter Cole Porter.

Focusing on lesser-known musicals, Music Theatre of Madison offers a deliciously dark duo of shows: Hostage Song (Jan. 29-Feb. 1) and Bonnie and Clyde (July 24-August 2). The rock musical Hostage Song has only been staged a few times. Its freshness, coupled with its story of two hostages falling in love, makes it a great pick for folks looking for a less conventional show. On the other side of the law, Bonnie and Clyde tells the tale of the infamous criminal couple. This will be the show's Wisconsin premiere.

For a more campy experience, see Xanadu (March 28-April 12), an OUT!Cast Theatre and Mercury Players production. It captures the wildness of the 1980 film with a live band, roller skates, a disco ball and songs from the movie.

Another quirky musical work is Broom Street Theater's The Sweet Lowdown (Oct. 25-Nov. 16). Funded partly by the Diabetes Hands Foundation, this production aims to entertain and educate. The first act tells the story of two people with diabetes, one with Type 1 and the other with Type 2. The second act brings together comedy, dance and music to share more information about the disease.

Bring the kids

Musical theater abounds for children, too. Children's Theater of Madison will present Anne of Green Gables (Oct. 12-27), a musical rendition of the children's book about an orphan growing up on Prince Edward Island. The Culberts were expecting to adopt a boy, but wind up with a feisty young girl. Anne Shirley's not who they were anticipating, but she wins them over with her spirit and love.

Littler ones will be delighted to see Children's Theater of Madison present Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (March 8-16), in which nothing goes right for a young boy. From waking up with gum in his hair to eating a dessert-less lunch, his day couldn't be worse. Full of relatable moments, it helps pre-K and young elementary students learn valuable lessons about coping with lousy events.

You don't have to be a kid to enjoy Fiddler on the Roof, the beloved tale about Russian shtetl life that Children's Theater of Madison will bring to Overture Center (April 25-May 11). With topics ranging from the day-to-day challenges of home life to social and political change, Fiddler makes an entertaining show for the whole family. You'll leave humming super-catchy songs like "If I Were a Rich Man."

Meta madness

Art imitates art in a couple of this season's shows. Encore Studio for the Performing Arts' The Green Room (Jan. 24-Feb. 8) explores relationships within the theater. What happens when you mix bad reviews, last-minute script changes, mental illnesses, grumpy technicians and actors? Find out in this farcical take on what really happens backstage.

Music Theatre of Madison also presents an original revue, You're the Flop: A History of Musical Theatre Failures, which tackles the question "What makes a show flop on Broadway?" It's not an easy answer, but it's a fun one. Flop musicals have produced memorable songs and characters, even if the rest of the show was utterly forgettable.

Holiday classics

The holidays are a great time to settle into to a warm theater with loved ones. Children's Theater of Madison has made A Christmas Carol (Dec. 13-23) an annual tradition for many families. American Players Theatre's James Ridge plays a perfect Scrooge, and the troupe's Carol is always visually stunning, with lush costumes and scenery that resembles a Christmas card.

StageQ offers a less traditional show each holiday season. This year, it's Scrooge in Rouge (Dec. 6-21), a remix of the Dickens classic. Three actors play 23 roles, relying on cross-dressing and quick costume changes for a fun new take on Carol.

Whether it's fall, winter, spring or summer, there are plenty of chances to experience high-quality homegrown theater in 2013-14. I hope to see you in the audience.

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