American theater is displaying marked signs of schizophrenia these days. The talk among the professionals is all about new plays: how to develop them, produce them, get audiences to see them. At the same time, limited public and corporate support for theater is creating fear and trepidation. Relying more and more on the box office for income, theaters are wary of investing in or staging work that can't be sold with a few well-chosen brochure lines: "Off-Broadway Hit!" "Box Office Smash!" "From the creators of 'Everybody Loves Raymond'!"
So most larger, mainstream theaters do their best, balancing sure entities with the occasional risk-taking production, hoping that some day the tide will turn and more support will come their way. At the same time smaller theaters scrimp and save and do everything it takes to develop and stage new work.
In Madison, the dichotomy doesn't play out quite as neatly. There are small theaters like Broom Street, Encore Studio for the Performing Arts, Whoop De Doo Productions and TAPIT that are devoted to new work, but the Madison Repertory Theatre has maintained its commitment to new plays since it changed artistic directors four years ago (see sidebar). And while some small theaters specialize in edgy work that has recently been produced in New York or elsewhere (Mercury Players Theatre), others field the kind of mixed repertory programming that might be typical of a larger regional theater trying to appeal to a broad audience.
The good news for Madison theater, at least for the 2006-07 season, is that there are enough different groups to offer something for every kind of fan. Filled with everything from chestnuts to cutting-edge new work, from universal classics to Wisconsin stories, the season ahead is as interesting and diverse as you can imagine for a midsize city.
Here's a selective and slightly opinionated sampling of the shows ahead, focusing on known quantities. The new works you'll have to judge for yourself.
Judging from its 2006-07 lineup, Strollers is the little theater company that wants to be a mainstream regional theater. With solid, audience-friendly programming that touches all the bases, it's certain to offer its subscribers a balance of diversity and familiarity, comfort and challenges.
The challenge should come in the form of a hunchbacked king who's up to no good. Staging Shakespeare's Richard III (Nov. 2) is no easy task, and despite its great speeches and Tarantino-like acts of treachery, it's a complicated play to watch as well. But it's a savvy choice for the times in which we live, and don't be surprised if King Dick sports a Texas twang and a cowboy hat.
The season opens in more friendly territory with Sylvia (Aug. 31), one of the sunniest and most successful plays by A.R. Gurney, that great dissector of the New England WASP psyche. A comedy about a dog that almost shatters a 20-year marriage, it's filled with sprightly writing and great canine humor.
Strollers will also feature alternative fare for the holidays, Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol by Tom Mula (Dec. 20), a retelling of Dickens' classic from Marley's point of view. It's perfect for those who still pine for Victorian Christmas cheer but just can't bring themselves to be blessed again by that little shit, Tiny Tim. They'll also pay a visit to the Age of Aquarius and Edwardian England, rounding out the season with the musical Hair (March 1) and the charming Enchanted April (May 3), about four women who find new life while vacationing in Italy.
Mercury Players Theatre
If you want to see what's been happening in playwrighting in the last decade, subscribe to Mercury Players' season. It's not the sunniest worldview around, but there is still a touch of sweetness sprinkled through this season's mostly dark comedies.
I know I'll be lining up to see Tracy Letts' Bug (Jan. 12), which has been a big hit in Chicago (where Letts is based) and New York. Taking off from the trailer-trash grand guignol of Letts' Killer Joe, which Mercury produced in 2003, Bug adds a touch of science fiction to the mix, putting the three troubled main characters in the company of a few hundred of their best six-legged friends.
Along with this violent audience pleaser, Mercury will stage two truly great plays, Caryl Churchill's A Number (June 1) and Paula Vogel's The Long Christmas Ride Home (June 7). Both address powerful and disturbing issues through the specifics of well-drawn characters and inventive theatricality. Known as the play that brought Sam Shepard back to stage acting after three decades, A Number is a terse, harrowing story of three sons who confront their father about their origins. The Long Christmas Ride Home, which uses puppetry and dance to tell its story, is indeed about a holiday car ride. Along the journey, Vogel uses humor and style to illuminate the wrenched dynamics that lie beneath a Hallmark Card faÃade.
Mercury opens its season with Bridget Carpenter's The Faculty Room (Sept. 28), a dark portrait of a suburban high school in which the teachers, not the students, are the biggest problem. And Brides of the Moon (Oct. 6) is a comedy by the Five Lesbian Brothers about women astronauts who can't complete their mission of docking (in more ways than one) with a group of male astronauts.
The UW's theater program has been shifting focus lately, breaking out of its purely academic approach to theater and emphasizing more professional training of actors, directors and other theater artists. As a result, you may be seeing more UW actors on stages around town as the theater strengthens its ties with the community.
You can detect the department's dual identity in the productions that bookend the UT's season: The Beckett Project and Urinetown, the Musical. Beckett meets Broadway!
Phillip Zarrilli, a former UW faculty member, is behind The Beckett Project (Sept. 15), a collection of four short plays that has already toured the world to great acclaim. Zarrilli, who is now based at England's Exeter University, is a specialist in teaching acting through the prism of yoga and martial arts, an angle that should be particularly interesting when applied to the charged stillness of Beckett's text and images.
Urinetown (April 20) is one of the new breed of Broadway musicals that started popping up in the early part of the decade. Skewering almost every style of musical imaginable (think of it as The Cradle Will Rock meets South Park), it should be a great test for the UT's acting stable, and a whole lot of fun.
The other notable show on this year's roster is Arabian Nights (Nov. 16), Mary Zimmerman's inventive adaptation of the classical tale of Scheherezade. Known for the simple but stunning visuals she brings to stories like The Metamorphoses and The Odyssey, Zimmerman offers a great challenge to directors and designers. Norma Saldivar and the UW design squad should be up to it.
The UT rounds out its season with two classics: The Rover (Oct. 20), Aphra Behn's Jacobean-era tale of romantic entanglements set during Italian carnivale; and Chekhov's great comedy of modern ennui, Three Sisters (March 2).
Madison's GLBT theater features three dramas set on the queer side of life, as well as a weekend of short plays. Ugly Ducklings (Sept. 28) is a drama set in a girl's summer camp by the prolific lesbian-feminist playwright Carolyn Gage. On the lighter side, Stephen Deghelder's A Kiss from Alexander (Jan. 12) is a backstage comedy about the first musical about Alexander the Great: Romantic mayhem ensues. And Claudia Allen, a fixture at the Tony-winning Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago, offers her campy soap opera satire Gays of Our Lives (March 8).
Madison Theatre Guild
Madison's "hey, let's put on a show" company offers four audience-pleasers in its 60th season, beginning with Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers (Sept. 8). One of Simon's best "serious-minded" plays, it's a family-centered comedy with lots of heartfelt nostalgia. It refuses, however, to gloss over the darker side of the American experience in the 1940s, particularly in the character of the difficult and even sadistic Grandma Kurnitz.
The MTG lets its hair down (and pulls its garter belts up) with its season closer, The Rocky Horror Show (June 8), one of the few shows this season in which it will be okay to sing along.
But just try to keep up with the rapid-fire dialogue of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) (Feb. 9), which bounces through every plot twist and gender reversal in Shakespeare's canon. And get out your handkerchiefs for the Guild's holiday show, The Fantasticks (Dec. 1), in which a few nice songs and a story about a boy and a girl yielded investors a 19,465% return. (Really ' you can look it up.)