Studio Theatre's 2003-04 season will open with the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Topdog/Underdog" by Suzan-Lori Parks, the first African American woman to win the award for drama. "We've got the plays," said Artistic Director Joy Zinoman of her upcoming roster, which includes several works from across the pond. "They are the best contemporary writing, that's all I care about," she said.

"Topdog/Underdog" (Sept. 3-Oct. 12) examines the explosive relationship between two African American brothers iconically -- and fatalistically -- named Booth and Lincoln. Actor-director-playwright Thomas W. Jones II will star in and Zinoman will direct Studio's first-ever co-production, with Minneapolis's Mixed Blood Theatre.

Ted van Griethuysen will play the title character in Bertolt Brecht's "The Life of Galileo" (Oct. 22-Nov. 30), adapted by British playwright David Hare. Van Griethuysen played the same role to admiring reviews in London last summer and the same director, David Salter, will stage it here.

"The York Realist" (Dec. 3-Jan. 11, 2004), a memory play by Peter Gill, will be the American premiere of a work from London's Royal Court Theatre. It is, said Zinoman, an "incredibly beautiful love story [about] two young men -- one a theater director and one a farmer," set in the 1960s. Serge Seiden, Studio's associate producing artistic director, will direct.

Zinoman will direct another British import, Caryl Churchill's "Far Away" (March 31-May 9, 2004). It is, said Zinoman, "a play about war . . . mysteriously evocative and harrowing."

Studio ferries over to Ireland with Martin McDonagh's "The Cripple of Inishmaan" (May 19-June 27, 2004), directed by Seiden. The comedy by the author of the "Leenane Trilogy" is about "a quirky young boy on a crutch with dreams of being a movie star," said Zinoman.

The theater will also present two "special events." Pamela Gien's Obie-winning play, "The Syringa Tree" (Feb. 13-29), directed by J.R. Sullivan, conjures a woman's memories of growing up in apartheid South Africa and calls for one actress to assay 20 parts. "Show Trash" (June 11-27, 2004) is an autobiographical cabaret starring performance artist John Epperson, who will step away from his drag persona, Lypsinka, to perform as himself.

Studio's non-Equity wing, Secondstage, which showcases young performers, will offer "The Galileo Project" (Nov. 13-23), readings to complement "The Life of Galileo." Christopher Shinn's "Four" (Jan. 8-Feb. 1, 2004), another work recently done off-Broadway, is "a provocative picture of sex in contemporary America," according to Studio's announcement. Secondstage's season-closer will be "The Who's Tommy" (July 8-Aug. 8, 2004), directed by Keith Alan Baker, Secondstage artistic director and Studio's managing director. "Tommy" may christen Secondstage's new space, if Studio's expansion into two adjacent 14th Street NW buildings goes according to schedule.

The Learned Elizabeth Michael Learned estimated that she's read perhaps 20 books about Elizabeth I, whom she plays in Maxwell Anderson's "Elizabeth the Queen" at the Folger Theatre through May 4.

"I wouldn't say I'm an expert on Elizabeth. Mostly I was interested in her childhood and who she was as a woman, more than all the historical battles," Learned said last week.

She views the play as "sort of a struggle between the way men see things and the way women see things. He [Essex] wants to go out and fight all these wars and bring glory to England. And Elizabeth wants to keep the peace."

Though best known as the mother on the hit '70s television series "The Waltons," Learned has appeared often on Broadway, recently in "The Best Man" and "The Sisters Rosensweig." Kennedy Center audiences saw her in Edward Albee's "Three Tall Women" a couple of seasons ago.

In "Elizabeth the Queen," the monarch's falling-out with Essex over how to wield -- and who should wield -- England's power breaks her heart and separates Essex from his head. Playwright Anderson's conceit appealed to Learned. "For her to rule a country and with the intrigue that was all around her, she had to be made of stone. But what he deals with in this play is that she wasn't," said the actress.

"A very powerful woman can be very insecure as a woman . . . including me in some ways. I had a very successful career. And yet as a woman, I didn't come into my own until I turned 50."

Offstage Honors A new Washington theater award debuted March 31. In a casual but tastily catered ceremony at Mimi's American Bistro, the Offstage Honors, sponsored by the League of Washington Theatres, were handed out to 23 people who work behind the scenes. Recipients of the "Offies" were chosen for recognition by their own theaters. The list will be posted on the League of Washington Theatre Web site, www.lowt.org.

In addition, special awards were presented to Andy Shallal, Mimi's owner, a Theatre J board member and tireless theater supporter, and to James Taylor, founder of the Washington Area Performing Arts Video Archive, which records professional theater performances to be stored at the Martin Luther King library.

Follow Spots

* Scena Theatre will present a staged reading of Vaclav Havel's comedy "The Memorandum" tonight at 7:30 in the Embassy of the Czech Republic.

Call 202-274-9100, Ext. 3413. Scena is also taking its 2001 production of Euripides' "Orestes" to Greece on April 11 for the Thessaloniki International Spring Theatre Festival.

* Asian Stories in America Theatre will present "BEE" by Prince Gomolvilas Thursday through May 3 at Theater on the Run in Arlington. The "supernatural" comedy turns on the relationship between an invisible Asian American man and the only person who can see him -- an African American woman. Call 703-979-0875.

"I was interested in her childhood and who she was as a woman," says Michael Learned (with Martin Kildare) of the title role in "Elizabeth the Queen."Studio's lineup will include, from left, Ted van Griethuysen in "The Life of Galileo"; John Epperson (pictured in part as his drag persona, Lypsinka) performing as himself in "Show Trash"; and Thomas W. Jones II in "Topdog/Underdog."