Round House Theatre's new artistic director swaps out two shows for the coming season

Departing from custom, the new producing artistic director of Round House Theatre has decided to scrap two of the plays announced for the 2012-13 season by his predecessor and replace them with works more in line with his own tastes.

Gone as a result of Ryan Rilette’s decision are a revival of a chestnut musical from the ’60s, “I Do! I Do!,” and a mystery by Jeffrey Hatcher, “Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Suicide Club.” In their respective April and May slots in Round House’s schedule will now run the East Coast premiere of Bill Cain’s “How to Write a New Book for the Bible” and the area debut of “Becky Shaw,” a comedy by Gina Gionfriddo that has been well received in New York and elsewhere.

Rilette, who took over as Round House’s artistic and business-side leader on Aug. 1, said he intended no disrespect to Blake Robison, who led Round House for seven years and arranged the 2012-13 season before leaving to run the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. His rationale for the substitutions was an eagerness to give theatergoers a timelier sense of the direction he wants to take the company, as well as being “bothered” by the fact that the lineup of playwrights for the coming year included no women.

“I told the board it was important in this first year audiences get a sense of my artistic vision for the company,” said Rilette, who came to the Bethesda-based theater after serving as managing director of the Marin Theatre Company, in the wealthy suburbs north of San Francisco. “What it came down to for me was recognizing those two shows were shows that would not end up in any season that I would pick.”

Since the transfer of power at not-for-profit theaters tends to occur in the period between the end of one season of plays and the start of the next, it is often the responsibility of a departing leader to pick the plays to be produced during a successor’s first year on the job. That is because rights to plays, the casting of actors and hiring of directors must be negotiated months, and sometimes as much as a year, in advance, so that a full new season can be unveiled to potential subscribers. This was the case in 2010 when Joy Zinoman, leaving after more than three decades at Studio Theatre, arranged virtually the entire schedule for the following season, when David Muse would be in place as Studio’s artistic director.


Ryan Rilette. (ClintonBPhotography)

The year’s lag time can be confusing for audiences attempting to acquire a feel for the kinds of shows favored by a new artistic head. With that in mind, Rilette says, he opted to ask Cain — whose “Equivocation” ran last fall at Arena Stage — for the rights this coming season to “How to Write a New Book for the Bible,” which Rilette will also direct and will run April 10 to May 5.

The play, based on Cain’s own life, details what happens after a man moves in to care for his elderly mother. “I’ve had the chance to work with Bill twice as a producer, but this is the first time as a director,” Rilette said. “It’s the perfect play to introduce the kind of work that I want to do here. It’s actor- driven, it’s very spare, very elegant in its stage poetry. It’s a play about family and relationships and storytelling. I thought, ‘I just can’t pass up this opportunity to perform that piece.’ ”

The absence of women writers in Round House’s upcoming season subjected the company to criticism on social media and elsewhere. “I felt really strongly that we needed to have some female voice in the season,” Rilette said. “It bothered me that it was all male playwrights.” In 2009, Gionfriddo — whose comedy “After Ashley” received a production at Woolly Mammoth Theatre four years earlier — was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for “Becky Shaw,” a work that explores the comic complications after a young woman is set up on a blind date. It will run May 29 to June 23. No director has been chosen.

The rest of Round House’s season, which begins in early September with the regional premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” remains intact.

Rilette said Robison had learned of the proposed changes before Rilette could contact him: “Blake was nice enough to e-mail and say, ‘It’s your season.’ ”

Among those most directly affected by the change in plans are Sherri L. Edelen and Thomas Adrian Simpson, the married Washington actors who were to appear in the two-actor “I Do! I Do!” Rilette says he told them that he will endeavor to find other roles for them soon.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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