Blake Robison, the new artistic director at Round House Theatre, wants to start his first season with an offering of blood, guts, sex and kitchen experiments.
The first three of those elements pertain to "Camille," Round House's mainstage season opener at its 400-seat Bethesda venue, which Robison is directing. "Camille" will run Sept. 14 to Oct. 9, and he is deep into rehearsals. Robison says Neil Bartlett's adaptation of "La Dame aux Camelias" (by Alexandre Dumas, son of the author of "The Three Musketeers") dispenses with "the 'Masterpiece Theatre'-like veneer" it has accrued via the Verdi opera "La Traviata" and the 1937 Greta Garbo film "Camille." It gets to "the blood and guts of the story" with "great frankness and candor and sexuality," he says.
The experiments will be generated by Robison's launch of the Kitchen, an arts incubator at Round House's Silver Spring spaces, which include a 150-seat "black box" theater, five classrooms and a dance studio. He and the theater's staff have compiled an initial list of 40 actors, six designers, 12 directors, and 14 writers and other professional theater folk who have some sort of artistic relationship with Round House. They have been invited, as "members" of the Kitchen, to test their theatrical recipes in Silver Spring, rent-free.
They can work on readings, workshops, practice for auditions or classes. "Whatever they need the space for," Robison says. "In my experience, what artists need most is time and space to do their work, and we're providing that."
The Kitchen will be run by actress Jane Beard, a longtime company member, and Danisha Crosby, Round House's associate producer. If it really takes off, Robison says, he will need more underwriting to hire a full-time Kitchen staff.
Round House will also lend its black-box theater as a performance venue for the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, Lumina Studio Theatre, which trains young people and adults in Shakespearean theater, Open Circle Theatre, which integrates disabled actors into its casts, and the Playwrights' Forum, which nurtures dramatists.
"Our hope is that this will put Round House at the center of Montgomery County's artistic and intellectual life," says Robison.
Breathing Life Into First Amendment
Jon Robin Baitz's 1994 play "Three Hotels" is an intensely confessional piece in which a husband and wife speak to the audience in monologues about the personal tragedy and emotional paralysis that is destroying their marriage and deadening the husband's sense of corporate ethics.
Yet this quiet play is also a milestone for Rick Davis, showing that Theater of the First Amendment is back. It will present "Three Hotels" Sept. 15-Oct. 2 in the Harris Theater on George Mason University's Fairfax campus.
Artistic Director Davis says the 500-seat Harris "begins to test Theater of the First Amendment's viability in a larger market, if I can be so bold. The next transition for the company is to increase the level of private support." Davis hopes one day the theater will be independent enough to move off-campus.
After 2000, the small professional theater nearly fell off the map, drastically cutting back its season to just a couple of weekends, with staged readings of new works (its First Light Festival) and brief revivals of the folk-inspired musicals by Mary Hall Surface and David Maddox, such as "Sing Down the Moon," that Theater of the First Amendment premiered in the '90s. The university was expanding, but the theater faced a freeze in funding.
It had to regroup.
Now, Davis says, it's inching back. After "Three Hotels" it'll do a new Surface/Maddox musical, "Lift: Icarus and Me" in January. Next season, the goal is three fully produced shows. Last year, the university accounted for 80 percent of the theater group's $330,000 budget, according to Managing Director Kevin Murray. This year, the goal is to shave five or 10 percentage points off the university's underwriting and replace that with private funding. It has meant a "paradigm shift," says Murray. "Like any theater in the country, we should really be out there fundraising."
"Three Hotels" is something of a family affair.
Murray is playing the husband opposite his real-life wife, Mary Lechter, who calls Theater of the First Amendment her "artistic home," though she works in independent and industrial films and television. The couple last acted together for the theater group in Vaclav Havel's "The Memorandum" in 1999. At a rehearsal last week, Murray, who has appeared in "The Wire" and "Homicide: Life on the Street," was on stage fine-tuning a monologue in which his martini-sipping executive discusses firing people. Davis, who is directing, sat down front. Lechter observed from a back row.
In writing "Three Hotels" Baitz drew on the baby-formula scandals of the late 1970s, in which formula hawked to Third World countries caused infant deaths and disease, because of illiteracy and bad water.
"Half the mission at TFA is to provide our audience with thought-provoking plays and this is certainly thought-provoking," says Murray. At a reading of it about six months ago, "the emotional response we got from the audience that night was really very powerful," he recalls.
"I'm hoping that it is one of those that people will talk about all the way home," says Lechter.
'Radio Golf' Plays Through at Center Stage
* Center Stage in Baltimore will produce the regional premiere of August Wilson's "Radio Golf" next spring. The play marks the final installment in the gravely ill playwright's 10-play cycle about the African American experience, one set in each decade of the 20th century. The theater canceled a planned production of "The Heiress" to make way for "Radio Golf."
The full season will open with "King Lear" (Sept. 23-Nov. 6), staged by Artistic Director Irene Lewis. Will Frears will direct Noel Coward's "Hay Fever" (Nov. 3-Dec. 4), and Kenneth Roberson will stage the musical "Once on This Island" (Dec. 16-Jan. 22) by the "Ragtime" team of writer Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty.
Lewis will direct the American premiere of Israeli dramatist Motti Lerner's "The Murder of Isaac" (Feb. 3-March 12), about the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, then Kenny Leon will direct "Radio Golf" (March 23-April 30). Lynn Nottage's "Crumbs From the Table of Joy" (May 5-June 11), directed by David Schweizer, will end the season. Visit www.centerstage.org.
* Everyman Theatre in Baltimore will present "The Last Five Years" (Sept. 6-Oct. 16), a song cycle tracing the arc of a failed marriage by composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown, staged by Artistic Director Vincent M. Lancisi. Juanita Rockwell will direct the hostage-terrorist drama "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me" by Frank McGuinness (Nov. 8-Dec. 18). Donald Hicken will oversee Martin McDonagh's dark comedy of rural Ireland "The Cripple of Inishmaan" (Jan. 17-Feb. 26).
* Arena Stage has canceled its Friday preview of "Passion Play, A Cycle" by Sarah Ruhl, due to "a complex and extended" period of technical rehearsals.