Every year at this time, our theaters announce their upcoming seasons in a prose that reverberates with significance. "A provocative range of themes investigating the nature of power and highlighting a spectrum of strong women's roles," trumpets one (the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger), while another (Horizons) pledges "three powerful, diverse plays which promise to enlarge our audiences' perspectives and further explore myths about female and male roles in modern society." The fledgling Washington Stage Guild will not stop short of giving us "three masterworks of world theater."
September is the month for dreaming big.
And not, perhaps, entirely without reason. Later this month, Donna McKechnie shows up at the National Theatre as that dance hall loser, "Sweet Charity," in the revival of the Cy Coleman/Neil Simon musical. In October, Derek Jacobi, who last took the town by storm in "Cyrano," will be back at the Kennedy Center in the pre-Broadway drama, "Breaking the Code," playing a homosexual British mathematician who cracks the Nazis' secret communications network. Arena Stage has engaged the brilliant Romanian director Lucian Pintilie to stage "The Cherry Orchard" in April, and, judging from his past productions of "The Wild Duck" and "Tartuffe," one can anticipate cataclysms.
Such plays as "The Colored Museum" and "Split Second" (at the Studio) and "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," "Checkmates" and "Les Blancs" (at Arena) suggest there is a concerted effort afoot to address the concerns of black audiences. Shakespeare, South African playwright Athol Fugard and off-Broadway writer Harry Kondoleon are among those who will be represented by more than one production this year. And for sheer kicks, the spring holds out the promise of the fabled Rockettes in a road company of "Can-Can" in Baltimore and Arena's revival of "The Cocoanuts," a piece of 1925 Marx Brothers anarchy.
Most of the forthcoming productions, however, still exist in the mind's eye, and to predict those which will measure up to the inner vision of their creators is folly on a par with that of the supermarket tabloids that see California falling off the map in 1988.
What you can identify at this point in the season are the hot spots, where the rumble of change is in the air and a new element has been introduced into the theatrical equation. The biggest question mark hangs over the Kennedy Center, where on Feb. 1 the reins of power will be passed from Roger L. Stevens to Time Inc. publishing executive Ralph P. Davidson. No one expects Stevens to bow out of the picture completely; in fact, the center trustees have voted him the lifetime title of founder/chairman.
Still, Davidson, a man of limited experience in the arts, will increasingly exercise the clout. The trustees knighted him, apparently, for his administrative and managerial abilities, and in that respect his appointment can be viewed as a reaction to the experimental excesses indulged in by Peter Sellars and the late American National Theater. Unbridled art had its chance and proved itself a box office failure. Now hardheaded management gets its turn, and you can be reasonably certain that the center will be venturing out on fewer artistic limbs.
On the other hand, the turbulence that has enlivened the small-theater scene of late seems likely to augment. On Oct. 14, the Studio Theatre takes the biggest gamble of its 10-year existence when it moves into its new 180-seat space at 14th and P streets NW, baptizing it with an Israel Horovitz play, "North Shore Fish," about the women working in a Gloucester, Mass., fish-processing plant.
Washington theater has long been polarized -- with the institutional powerhouses (Arena, Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger, Kennedy Center) at one end of the spectrum and a host of ambitious, perpetually underfinanced and largely non-Equity houses at the other end. The Studio's move is postulated on the belief that there is a viable middle ground, and its success or failure will have far-reaching consequences.
Meanwhile, the Studio's former quarters, a block away, will be taken over by the peripatetic Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, which for the first time in its history will be able to consolidate its operations under one roof. Because Source's two theaters and Arena's Living Stage are just up the street, the 14th Street corridor has been touted as Washington's Theater Row. This season, there will certainly be more justification for viewing it as such.
The Source, having deposed its founder Bart Whiteman, appears far less willing under executive director Pat Sheehy to fly by the seat of its pants and has a lineup that ranges from Jean Anouilh's rose-colored "Time Remembered" to Harvey Fierstein's look at the AIDS crisis, "Safe Sex." After a year on the job, artistic director Michael Kahn seems to have the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger soundly on track. The Bard continues to reign supreme, but Kahn's enthusiasm for Jacobean tragedy will also make itself felt: The kickoff is the little-known, rarely performed "The Witch of Edmonton."
However, the phoenix of this season could well turn out to be the New Playwrights' Theatre, long dogged by financial woes and artistic indecision. Its new artistic director, Peter Frisch, seems to have gotten the feel of the place over the summer, the staff has been shaken up, and a push is on to honor the theater's original mandate, the production of new plays. "Out," a chronicle of corruption in the World Series of 1919, leads off early in October.
That the small theaters have made their presence felt in recent years is incontestable. The League of Washington Theatres recently added five new members to its ranks, bringing the total to 19. More and more, there is a welcome unpredictability to the fare, an eagerness to venture down less traveled dramatic byways, accompanied by a steady rise in production standards. Even Arena Stage will getting back on a more experimental tack, reducing its main-stage offerings from eight productions to seven. This, in order to make room for Stage Four -- three contemporary works, one of which, "The Rivers and Ravines," is a dramatization of the farm crisis based on interviews conducted by Arena's actors in eastern Colorado.
In the end, however, our best hopes for a lively season lie less in the particular plays than in the players themselves -- onstage and off. Their willingness to challenge the status quo, alter theatrical formulas and reinvent their performing spaces are what counts. Ferment is as indispensable to the making of good theater as it is to production of good wine.
In that light, the decision of Horizons, long dedicated to feminist concerns, to stage a work by a male playwright for the first time in its history (Lee Blessing's "Eleemosynary") is noteworthy. Male chauvinism is not the issue here. Flexibility is.
The following is a list of upcoming shows with the dates of their first performance.
SEPTEMBER: Athol Fugard's "The Blood Knot" examines the relationship of two brothers in South Africa -- one black, the other light enough to pass as white (Sept. 15, Washington Stage Guild). Barbara Rush is "A Woman of Independent Means" in the one-woman show about strong-willed Dallas socialite Bess Steed Garner (Sept. 15, Ford's Theatre). The off-Broadway revue "A . . . My Name Is Alice" plays fast and loose with feminism (Sept. 17, Horizons). "Quilters" won the Helen Hayes Award for best musical last season; now it's back (Sept. 17, Castle Arts Center). Director Stan Wojewodski Jr. plans to set "Hamlet" in Vienna at the turn of the century (Sept. 18, Baltimore's Center Stage). "If My Friends Could See Me Now" and "Big Spender" are just two of the hits that came out of the Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields/Neil Simon musical "Sweet Charity" (Sept. 22, National Theatre). Sherlock Holmes comes back again -- did he ever really go away? -- in "Crucifer of Blood" (Sept. 22, Olney Theatre). Teddy Roosevelt and his headstrong daughter are the central characters of the new musical "Teddy and Alice" (Sept. 29, Baltimore's Morris A. Mechanic Theatre). The Royal Shakespeare Company's Barry Kyle will guest-direct the lurid, little-known Jacobean tragedy "The Witch of Edmonton" (Sept. 29, Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger).
OCTOBER: Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician lauded for "Breaking the Code" of the Nazi war machine, is also persecuted for being homosexual in Hugh Whitmore's drama, imported from London (Oct. 1, Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater). Continuing his exploration of black life in 20th-century America, August Wilson has set "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" in a Pittsburgh boarding house in 1911 (Oct. 2, Arena's Kreeger Theater). Eight members of the Chicago White Sox conspire to lose the 1919 World Series in "Out" (Oct. 6, New Playwrights'). Keith Reddin takes a look at the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion and 1960s patriotism in "Rum and Coke" (Oct. 8, Round House Theatre). Popular tunesmith Sammy Cahn sits down at the piano and reprises his repertory of songs in the revue "Words & Music" (Oct. 13, Ford's). The women working in a Gloucester frozen-fish processing plant are facing stiff Japanese competition in "North Shore Fish" (Oct. 14, Studio). Robert Penn Warren's explosive novel of corrupt Southern politics, "All the King's Men," has been adapted for the stage by Adrian Hall (Oct. 16, Arena). "The Blood Knot" turns up again in what is being decribed as an "environmental" production (Oct. 16, American Showcase Theatre). Michael Frayn's farcical "Noises Off" shows us a third-rate theatrical touring troupe, coping poorly with professional jealousies, personal animosities and a general lack of talent (Oct. 20, Olney Theatre). Presented in French with English surtitles, Marguerite Duras' "L'Amante Anglaise" is based on the real-life case of a French woman who killed her husband, dismembered his body and threw the pieces into the cars of passing freight trains (Oct. 21, French Embassy). Clifford Odets' "Golden Boy" can make big bucks in the boxing ring; but he wants to be a violinist (Oct. 28, Source Warehouse Rep). Harvey Pekar's dramatization of his autobiographical comic book "American Splendor" gives us Cleveland in all its everyday glory (Oct. 30, Arena's Old Vat Room). Wallace Shawn's off-Broadway hit "Aunt Dan and Lemon" generally stirs up a fury of controversy with its unorthodox examination of morality and power (Oct. 30, Center Stage).
NOVEMBER: "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" was a hit 1974 movie about a scrappy young man coming of age in Montreal; now it's a musical with a score by Alan Menken (Nov. 2, Kennedy Center Opera House). Life in a small restaurant, right down to the flaming dishes, is the matter of Tina Howe's "The Art of Dining" (Nov. 4, Source Mainstage). A 40-year-old woman is found in a cabin in the remote Northwest; she speaks a combination of Cherokee and Ozark and confounds an investigating psychologist in "Idioglossia" by Mark Handley (Nov. 10, New Playwrights'). The gentle adventures of Elwood P. Dowd and his imaginary six-foot white rabbit, "Harvey," made for an American classic; this production promises a contemporary slant on the 1944 Broadway comedy (Nov. 12, Woolly Mammoth). Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" ushers in the holiday season (Nov. 27, Ford's).
DECEMBER: The third installment in Neil Simon's autobiographical trilogy, "Broadway Bound," has the young playwright breaking out of the nest and taking his first steps toward fame and fortune (Dec. 1, Morris A. Mechanic). "The Fairy Garden" and "Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise" are two comedies by Harry Kondoleon about the loopiness of contemporary living (Dec. 3, Round House). Bertram marries Helena on the king's command, then abandons her for the wars; Helena chases after in Shakespeare's "All's Well That Ends Well" (Dec. 8, Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger). "Light Up the Sky" gives us an insider's appreciation -- the late Moss Hart's -- of egomaniacal theater folk nervously awaiting the opening-night reviews of their latest show (Dec. 11, Arena). George C. Wolfe explodes the myths and icons of black America in the satirical "The Colored Museum" (Dec. 11, Center Stage). An eccentric aunt, a lovesick nephew and a young girl who looks suspiciously like his dead fiance'e are the chief characters in "Time Remembered," Jean Anouilh's romantic fable (Dec. 30, Source's Warehouse Rep).
THE NEW YEAR: Although "Enrico IV" has been carrying on for 20 years as if he were Emperor Henry IV of Germany, it's never certain in the world of Pirandello who's mad and who isn't (Jan. 1, Arena's Kreeger). Samuel P. Barton will direct both "The Colored Museum" and "Split Second," the drama of a black cop in a white society, and the two works will alternate in repertory (Jan. 13, Studio).
From Larry L. King, who penned "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," comes "The Night Hank Williams Died," a play about a Texas football player who yearns to be a famous country-western singer (Feb. 2, New Playwrights'). The late Lorraine Hansberry charted the contradictory impact of colonialism on two African brothers in "Les Blancs" (Feb. 5, Arena). Superstitious actors refer to it only as "the Scottish play," but the rest of us can still call it "Macbeth" (Feb. 16, Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger). Heather McDonald has fashioned "The Rivers and Ravines" out of interviews Arena's company members undertook with some of America's struggling farmers (Feb. 26, Arena's Kreeger).
"Checkmates" is a Ron Milner drama about two black couples -- one upwardly mobile and success oriented, the other clinging to the lessons of the past (March 18, Arena). Chita Rivera and the Rockettes head the cast of Cole Porter's "Can-Can" (March 22, Morris A. Mechanic). "The Cocoanuts" was the Marx Brothers musical fling of 1925; this revival, directed by Douglas Wager, will also celebrate composer Irving Berlin's 100th birthday (April 15, Arena). A trio of short plays relating to the AIDS crisis make up Harvey Fierstein's "Safe Sex" (April 20, Source Warehouse Rep). Lee Blessing's "Eleemosynary" cuts across three generations of independent women; according to the dictionary, the title means "of, relating to or supported by charity" (April 20, Horizons).
Romanian director Lucian Pintilie and Russian playwright Anton Chekhov -- it should make for a decidedly provocative production of "The Cherry Orchard" (April 29, Arena). A two-play repertory is one of the Woolly Mammoth's summer traditions; this time it will be Harry Kondoleon's "The Vampires" and Wallace Shawn's "Aunt Dan and Lemon" (June 9, Woolly Mammoth).