In the past year Washington theatergoers have seen Falstaff played by a woman, Doc Gibbs by a Hispanic with a pronounced accent and Iago by an African American. The fruits (including lemons) of nontraditional casting were particularly evident this year, provoking both controversy and applause of a distinctly contemporary nature.

"Nontraditional casting has happened in Washington," said Michael Kahn, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger. "It's a general political statement about how you view the world."

When Zelda Fichandler directed "Six Characters in Search of an Author" at Arena Stage in 1967, she cast one family with black actors and the other with white. This fall, her colleague Douglas C. Wager cast the families in "Our Town" interracially; both Emily and George had black siblings. One of these families had white parents, and one had a white mother and a Hispanic father (Doc Gibbs). Making each family a different race -- say, the Gibbses being black and the Webbses being white -- would have been "too comfortable" a choice for "here and now," Wager said recently.

Questions of comfort and discomfort are in some ways the heart of this issue, both qualities being desired by most theaters. "Our Town" has been attacked for going too far in its non-traditional casting, and for not going far enough to illustrate Thornton Wilder's broader concept of "the family of man."

Most theater people agree with the basic goals of nontraditional casting: to expand the "talent pool" and allocate already scarce theater jobs more equitably, thus broadening everyone's horizons and notions of what "can" and "can't" be done. There are different routes to these ends, and the Washington theater scene has accommodated almost all of them this year.

Directors are fond of citing the colorblind rule -- that is, the "best person for the role" -- sometimes coyly ignoring the hoops actors have to jump through to get an audition in the first place, and the fact that the audience is neither colorblind nor privy to the backstage maneuverings of casting. For a director, the road of good intentions is often paved with actors who drop out for a better job, casting agents who need their consciousness raised and tempers that flare regardless of noble goals.

Members of the Washington theater community point to a 1987 symposium on nontraditional casting as a watershed in the city's theater history. At that daylong meeting, hosted by Arena Stage and sponsored by a citywide organization of theaters large and small, years of anger and emotion were unleashed at the directors present. Arena's Fichandler and Wager came under particular attack (people who were there tend to use words such as "lacerating" to describe it), the result of years in which not only African American actors but local actors in general felt shut out by the largest producer of Washington theater. (The Kennedy Center and the National Theatre primarily present shows that originate elsewhere.)

The experience was especially frustrating for Fichandler and Wager, sources say, because they felt they had already begun to cast minority actors and to produce plays by black writers.

"That symposium has become famous all over the country," said Tazewell Thompson, a black director who was hired by Fichandler last year. "Whenever I go to a cross-cultural theater conference people always ask me if I was there." (He wasn't).

The past year shows that the aftershocks are still being felt here. For all its good intentions prior to the symposium, in the last three years that Arena has really started to make good on its promises. This year the resident company includes six black actors, up from two last year. Thompson has directed an all-black production of "The Glass Menagerie," August Wilson's "Fences," "Playboy of the West Indies," and this fall a multicultural production of "Caucasian Chalk Circle."

Last spring the cast of "Juno and the Paycock," set in Ireland, included a black actor, Jeffrey Wright. (At the same time, Fichandler's critically acclaimed production of "A Doll House," set in Norway, was all white). In "Juno," Wright was essentially unnoticed in a small part, so it could be said that casting him was a positive example of nontraditional casting.

Arena applied for and got a $1 million grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to train minority actors, directors, designers and administrators, and to produce plays from non-white cultures. (This grant, the largest in the theater's history, prompted a certain amount of sniping from other theaters that felt they had been in the game longer and more seriously than Arena.)

Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of the offbeat Woolly Mammoth Theatre, said the symposium prompted him to seek out minority actors instead of relying on them to show up at auditions. "I had thought we were doing pretty good," he said. "We had cast blacks since our earliest days, and we had cast women in men's parts because we had more good actresses than actors. We even cast a woman and black man as a pair of identical white male twins in 'Mystery Play.' But we do not have any black actors in our {resident} company."

Shalwitz said he and director Jeff Church made a concerted effort to find a black actor to play the lead role of Dr. Frank 'N' Furter in their current show, the loony hit musical "The Rocky Horror Show," but couldn't find one until recently. Ken Jackson will replace Grover Gardner in the part next month, and Caren Tate, a black actress, will replace Jennifer Mendenhall as Magenta.

Nationally, the issue of nontraditional casting was reflected most emotionally in the "Miss Saigon" controversy, when Actors Equity denied a work permit to British actor Jonathan Pryce, who played the lead role of the Eurasian Engineer to great acclaim in London. Equity said the part should be played by an Asian because Asians have so few opportunities at leads on Broadway, but the union reversed its ruling after producer Cameron Mackintosh canceled the $10 million production. Although the show will go on, the issue is still unresolved because Mackintosh has recently asked for a permit to cast a Filipino actress from the London production in the lead female role, eschewing hundreds of Asian American actresses who would love the job.

During the past year each theater's philosophy on nontraditional casting has become clearer to the outside observer. At Arena, the view is essentially, anything goes. "I've always been more interested in what someone can bring to the party if they bring everything they own," said Wager, who directed the controversial "Our Town" and is directing "Pygmalion," to open in March, with black actress Gail Grate as Eliza Doolittle.

While "Our Town" raised a mini-storm of argument, Michael Kahn at the Folger found his most off-the-wall casting this year provoked almost universal applause. Hiring the plump Pat (nee Patricia) Carroll to play the rotund Falstaff in "The Merry Wives of Windsor" proved to be a box-office draw as well as a critical success.

"I did the play just to do it with Pat," Kahn said. "The play had been done at the Folger only four years before, and I had done it before myself. ... We didn't know if it would work, but I'm glad we did it."

Director Harold Brooks recently cast the black actor Andre Braugher as Iago to Avery Brooks's Othello at the Folger, a provocative move that gives fresh nuances to the racial undertones of the play. And Folger actress Franchelle Stuart Dorn, who plays Emilia in "Othello," was a strong Elizabeth in "Mary Stuart" last winter.

"Here's the most famous woman in history!" said Kahn. "And no one was bothered that she was played by a woman of color." Kahn said that none of his subscribers have objected to any casting, and the number of subscribers has increased since he took over. "If anyone did object I would think that was the kind of person you are not very interested in having come to your theater anyway," he said.

Open casting works fine with the classics, other directors say, because nobody can say for sure what anybody looked like back then anyway. It's the "culturally specific" plays that pose the tricky decisions, and here there are several distinct philosophies.

Director Joy Zinoman of the Studio Theatre believes that plays written about a specific cultural or ethnic group should be cast that way, a view that Arena's Thompson shares. The audience is going to spend too much time wondering why a black child has a white mother, or vice versa, and not pay attention to the play, they argue -- which is not to say that non-specific roles should not be cast as written.

"If you've got a part of a yuppie lawyer -- well, Washington is full of yuppie lawyers who are black," said Zinoman. She said casting Romulus Linney's "Unchanging Love" (which opens soon) is an example of how the principle of nontraditional casting works in reality. The play is about two Appalachian families; she urged the director, Ed Morgan, to consider casting one family with black actors. She rejected a suggestion to cast two small roles, family friends, with minority actors, believing that that was tokenism. In the end, she said they cast "the best actors for the roles," and one family has a black father, a black child and a white mother.

It remains to be seen whether the audience will accept this family, in which, like Wager's upcoming "Pygmalion," the actors will explain their onstage relationships by invoking the ever-useful and unspoken notion of the Stepparent. Eliza Doolittle is a different color than her father because her (fictional) mother was black; his current wife is her stepmother. The wife in Linney's play is the child's stepmother; Linney didn't know this when he wrote the play, but presumably he does now.

"What does it say about the theater, the most liberal of arts, that we're tormented by this issue?" said Thompson. "We ought to be ashamed of ourselves."

Not surprisingly, the nontraditional casting movement has provoked charges (particularly from some actors) of reverse discrimination and suggestions that if the argument is carried to its intellectual end -- if minority actors are going to be cast in, say, "Death of a Salesman," -- then whites should be cast in "Raisin in the Sun," although both plays are culturally specific. At this point, most area directors, including Kahn and Zinoman, dismiss that idea as unreal as long as racial discrimination exists.

But neither Thompson nor Wager scoffs entirely at the notion. "I don't dismiss anything automatically anymore," said Wager.