Just as there is no crying in baseball, dear readers, you'll be pleased to learn there is no flatulence in "Urinetown."
"You don't want to become gross," says director Joe Calarco, who is staging the "regional premiere" of the Tony-winning musical at Signature Theatre, where it will run tonight through Oct. 9. The challenge, he says, is "not falling over, ironically, into toilet humor."
How can a director reconceive or add "edge" to an already satiric musical about a drought-ridden city where home toilets are banned and public toilets are pay-as-you-go, run by a corporate villain? Do you layer more irony onto a show in which those who find relief in the bushes are deported to a Siberia called Urinetown?
"You can't," says Calarco, who feels obliged to let "Urinetown" be "Urinetown." He told his designers, "I just want to try to find new funny bits in it, but we really can't reconceive."
Its knowing, self-referential score and script (by composer Mark Hollmann and writer Greg Kotis) already spoofs the styles of composer Kurt Weill and playwright Bertolt Brecht, among other socially conscious writers of the pre-World War II 20th century.
From the moment the six-member orchestra plays the overture, the style is set, Calarco explains. "The first sounds of it are very 'Threepenny Opera,' " he says, so the production will be "our perception of what Brechtian means." After all, he adds, "It's a very dark subject, if you really get down to what it's about." That will mean a Depression-era visual style with a rough-hewn wooden set (by James Kronzer) and costumes (by Anne Kennedy) with visual punch lines sewn into them. "The costumes are a very heightened reality," says Calarco, as is "the way the actors play it." As Little Becky Two Shoes, for example, actress Sherri L. Edelen has a hugely pregnant belly, frizzy blond wig, eye patch and leg brace.
"It's so stylized. Everything is a production number in this show. Every scene is very 'staged,' " says Calarco. He has posted a backstage bulletin board with "iconic shapes and iconic images" for the cast to study -- "Grecian urn" poses and Golden Age Hollywood publicity shots.
Naturally, Calarco is eager to note that one doesn't have to catch every allusion and bit of spoofery in "Urinetown" to find the show's acidity bracing. "Yes, it spoofs a lot of theater, and if you know theater, you'll get that, but it's funny beyond that," Calarco maintains.
"It's more sophisticated than people imagine it is."
On a wooden platform in the H Street Playhouse, with raised areas for judge and jury, a very young-looking Oscar Wilde sags with weariness as he is found guilty of "gross indecency" (homosexual liaisons) and a judge says, "This is the worst case I have ever tried."
Actor Cooper D'Ambrose, the son of stage actors in Minnesota's Twin Cities, plays Wilde. He is one of three student actors and four designers from the North Carolina School of the Arts -- all seniors or grad students -- who have come to Washington's Theater Alliance to reprise Moises Kaufman's "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde" with Artistic Director Jeremy Skidmore, who staged it with them at his alma mater last February. Eight Washington actors will complete the cast.
"Gross Indecency" will run Thursday through Sept. 18.
Skidmore says he faced a conceptual dilemma when directing the play in North Carolina: The actors playing Wilde, his defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges and witnesses were all about 20 years old. Wilde, when he was convicted and sent to prison in 1895, was almost 41. "I was trying to think of an approach that would justify the youthfulness of the group," Skidmore recalls. He took a cue from playwright Kaufman's "Laramie Project," about the murder of gay student Matthew Shepard, in which actors and dramatists collaborated with Kaufman on research.
"We kind of removed the playwright from the equation and pretended the actors playing the roles were the ones who gathered all the material," Skidmore explains. He tried to make the show "more about the events and the beauty of Wilde's writing." Rather than ask his young cast to imitate older characters in as traditional actors might, he has them carry chairs and other props around the stage at scene changes to indicate they know they're in a play. The idea is to have the actors channel the spirit of Wilde's art and ordeal, rather than create it "Masterpiece Theatre" style.
The production ran for only five performances in North Carolina, but Skidmore feels it was some of his best work. Though he adds, "There were a handful of scenes in the original production that I didn't feel I'd quite figured out." He decided to remount the show at H Street to open the Alliance's new season.
Student actor D'Ambrose, 21, says Skidmore asked the cast from the start to think about why they wanted to tell Wilde's story. D'Ambrose answers, "because Oscar Wilde was such a great artist and a great human being. I think especially in today's changing world, it's important to realize beauty and what an important part that plays."
Andrew Pastides, 21, a fellow senior, plays Wilde's lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, aka "Bosie." He likes knowing "that we're in D.C. and so much about the trials was political."
Student Chance Carroll, also 21, takes on the role of Wilde's first defense attorney. He says one purpose of "Gross Indecency" is to "put up a mirror and say, look at the hatred these people are preaching."
MetroStage in Alexandria will open the new season with Canadian writer Michel Tremblay's "For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again" (Oct. 12-Nov. 27), a man's tribute to his mother and the way she nurtured his love of theater. Catherine Flye will star and John Vreeke will direct. Daniel Conway will do the set and lighting.
MetroStage will follow Tremblay's play with "Two Queens, One Castle" (Jan. 25 - March 5), a play that reunites writer-director Thomas W. Jones II and composer William Hubbard in their musical (premiered in Minneapolis) based on the life of Jevetta Steele, an Oscar-winning singer and composer.
Early feminist writer George Sand will share a stage with Sarah Bernhardt and others in the world premiere musical "Becoming George" (April 19 - May 28), with book and lyrics by Patti McKenny and Doug Frew and music by composer Linda Eisenstein.
Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin has not yet chosen MetroStage's 2006 summer musical. Visit www.metrostage.org.
* The Actors Theatre of Washington has changed the venue of its current all-male production of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" to Source Theatre for the entire run, through Sept. 4, because the new Busboys & Poets Cafe was not ready for occupancy. Visit www.atwdc.org or call 800-494-8497.
* African Continuum Theatre Company has appointed Melvin D. Gerald Jr. as its managing director. Washington-born and Maryland-bred, Gerald has a degree in theater from Morehouse College and worked at Signature Theatre as associate managing director under a grant from the Theatre Communications Group's New Generations Program.