"My number one goal is that I want to bring artists of the highest caliber" to Ford's Theatre, says its new producing director, Paul R. Tetreault.

Tetreault, who came to Washington in February after a decade as managing director of Houston's prestigious Alley Theatre, plans to hire plenty of local actors to put on classic American plays (and musicals, he quickly adds) that require big casts. "I think the theater community here is awesome -- so vast and so impressive," he says.

Tetreault, 41, has his work cut out for him; despite stellar exceptions such as the recent "1776," Ford's has developed a reputation for professional but cloying or unchallenging works geared to the tour-bus trade.

"We can't pander to that market at the expense of everything else," he says. "People who have been staying away from Ford's, those people I'm interested in having reexamine us, revisit what it is we do." He adds, "I think the tourists will not stay away from great theater" either.

The themes of Tetreault's first season are "relationships, the ties that bind us; issues of class and race." Ford's will open with a revival of Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker" (Sept. 24-Oct. 24), the classic that birthed "Hello, Dolly." Mark Lamos, who is staging the Kennedy Center's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," will direct.

Because he found Ford's "A Christmas Carol" "tired" despite new sets and costumes, this year's production of the Dickens classic (Nov. 23-Jan. 2) will be based on a new adaptation by Michael Wilson, with a new score by Mark Bennett, staged by Matt August.

Political satirist Mark Russell will appear Jan. 18-23, in time for the presidential inauguration. He'll be followed by Carson McCullers's "The Member of the Wedding" (Feb. 4-27), directed by Marshall W. Mason. The season will close with the touring company of Deaf West's "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (March 18-May 1), adapted from Mark Twain's novel by William Hauptman, with music and lyrics by Roger Miller and directed by Jeffrey Calhoun.

More 'Much Ado'

Aren't the prop swords a tad sharp? asked one actor, half-kidding, in a rehearsal room near Arena Stage. PJ Paparelli watched last week as Casey Biggs (Benedick), Geoffrey Lower (Don Pedro) and Bill Thompson (Claudio) worked through the scene in which Benedick challenges Claudio to a duel in "Much Ado About Nothing."

Paparelli is again staging the show as the Shakespeare Theatre's Free for All presentation in the Carter Barron Amphitheater, where it will run Thursday through June 6. The production is based on the Edwardian-styled version directed by Mark Lamos at the Shakespeare a few seasons ago, but Paparelli says the cast is 85 percent new -- Biggs and Sabrina Le Beauf (as Beatrice) among them.

After six years at the Shakespeare Theatre, Paparelli, 29, is about to become artistic director of the Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska. That's the theater founded and run for many years by Arena Stage's Molly Smith.

"I loved the people, I loved the community there. . . . It was just a good match," says Paparelli, who is also creator and director of "Columbinus," a drama that's part fiction and partly based on "hundreds of interviews with people all over the country" about the Columbine school shootings. Workshopped at Arena, the Kennedy Center and in Denver, "Columbinus" will be staged at Round House in March.

Paparelli says Perseverance will be "a really great place for me to fuse my classical and new-play talents."

Play Ball!

Current events and the darker side of Little League have inspired plays in the lineup at the Contemporary American Theater Festival, running July 9-Aug. 1 in Shepherdstown, W.Va. Begun in 1991, the festival showcases and workshops new American works -- some of them world premieres.

"Rounding Third" by festival regular Richard Dresser ("Gun Shy," "Below the Belt") was inspired by the playwright's son being asked to cheat by a coach. "So out of this experience comes this biting satirical comedy," says festival Producing Director Ed Herendeen, who will direct. It was workshopped at the festival three years ago, premiered in Chicago and played in New York. Herendeen says he told Dresser he wanted to give the play a full production at its birthplace.

Herendeen also will direct "Homeland Security" by Stuart Flack ("Sidney Bechet Killed a Man"). The play imagines the interrogation of a couple pulled out of line at Chicago's O'Hare Airport and explores how "paranoia and fear and lack of trust can deteriorate societies and governments . . . [and] our personal relationships," Herendeen says.

"Flag Day" comprises two one-acts by CATF return player Lee Blessing ("Thief River," "A Walk in the Woods"). One is a satire about corporate types ordered to vent racial hostilities in rants limited by an egg timer. The second, based on a news story, imagines a conversation between a hit-and-run driver and the dying man she left embedded in her windshield for days. Lucie Tiberghien will direct.

An original musical (book by Keith Glover, music and lyrics by Glover, Billy Thompson and George Caldwell), "The Rose of Corazon: A Texas Songplay," is about a World War II pilot who takes a Spanish bride home to Texas. Glover will direct.

Follow Spots

* Dame Judi Dench, honored with the Shakespeare Theatre's Will Award on May 17, was a sunny presence at the gala, which raised $490,000 for the theater's summer Free for All performances. She recounted a risque theater story to the crowd and advised artists to "take the work very seriously and take ourselves very frivolously." The entertainment included a sharp scene from "Antony and Cleopatra" with Shakespeare Theatre stalwarts Keith Baxter and Helen Carey, who says doing it out of context made her feel "as if I were a fish flopping around on a deck."

* Playwright Wendy Wasserstein will read from her play "Welcome to My Rash," recently premiered at Theater J, on Wednesday at a benefit for Georgetown University's Lombardi Cancer Center at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Call 202-444-7228.

Paul R. Tetreault, left, plans to bring large-cast musicals to Ford's Theatre, including "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.""Rounding Third" by Richard Dresser, left, is part of the lineup at the Contemporary American Theater Festival. Ed Herendeen will direct.