Images from Woolly Mammoth Theatre:

Roger Guenveur Smith writhes in a silent, inward-focused dance, conjuring up the character of Huey P. Newton.

Nancy Robinette stands forlornly in a heap of shoes, like a statue in some improbable fountain of footwear.

Rhea Seehorn sucks and sucks and sucks another actor's finger.

Hugh Nees appears in diapers.

Howard Shalwitz digs into a bowl of granola.

Not very dramatic, that last image, but vital. Shalwitz, who is submitting to a breakfast interview, is the artistic director of Woolly Mammoth, which for 20 years now--it was founded in the summer of 1979--has been the theater you could rely on not to be nice. A place where you could count on the politics to be radical, the sexuality to be frank (and not exclusively hetero-) and the tone to be weird. The place to see plays by Wallace Shawn ("Aunt Dan and Lemon"), Harry Kondoleon ("Christmas on Mars"), Nicky Silver ("Fat Men in Skirts"), to see plays about the Marquis de Sade, castration, baby-hatred, schizophrenia, salvation through rape, and many many varieties of gender confusion. Woolly is marking its two decades with a revival of its 1989 hit "The Dead Monkey," a play about a marriage with an unusual third member, which begins performances Wednesday. (Original star Sarah Marshall will reprise her role as the wife.)

Shalwitz, 47, has run Woolly Mammoth from the beginning, from its days performing in a space at the Washington School for Social Sciences and holding auditions outdoors in Glover Park through the years its stage was the parish hall at the Church of the Epiphany at 13th and G, to the present 132-seat theater near the corner of 14th and Church streets, where it's been since 1986.

Now Woolly Mammoth is planning a move to a slightly larger (maybe 200 seats), marginally less funky (better bathrooms) venue. Woolly is one of four applicants for a downtown space at Seventh and D streets, across from the Shakespeare Theatre. In case that doesn't work out, other locations are being investigated, and a move seems certain within two to three years. The exact whereabouts isn't of paramount importance to Shalwitz. His concern is how the new theater, wherever it is, "can have middle-class amenities but a counterculture atmosphere."

With its cramped auditorium and small stage--from which the actors sometimes have to exit into the lobby--the present space is perfumed with counterculture atmosphere, as if some attitudinal incense has been burning there all these years. The building was previously home to Studio Theatre (now a block away). Before that it was a warehouse for hot dog carts, and before that, like Studio's present building and some of the restaurants on 14th Street, an automobile showroom and repair shop. A bar on the corner occupies what was the showroom. Woolly is jammed into the former repair shop.

The limitations of the space, its casual shabbiness, have always suited Woolly. Most theater companies start in this kind of down-at-heels style; Woolly has held onto it, somewhat self-consciously. From the beginning, the theater was about not being a lot of things, and one of the things it was not was slick. The rough ambiance prepares the audience for the roughness on the stage--of subject, of play (many of the new works have a not-quite-finished feel to them), sometimes of artistry. The famous "freedom to fail" that theaters claim for themselves is easier for playgoers to take if they're not paying top price for cushy seats--tickets at Woolly range from $10 to $29--if the carpet is worn and the lobby modest, if it looks as if everyone involved is trying very hard.

Shalwitz's office is a small cubicle he shares with Managing Director Kevin Moore, who oversees the financial management of the theater. His desk is jammed up against a large window. Among other detritus--a framed postage stamp of a woolly mammoth, a pink plastic water pistol--it holds three of the 16 Helen Hayes Awards the theater has won.

The head of the most confrontational theater in town looks mild enough: slender, balding, short beard, nondescript clothes. If he wore glasses, he'd suggest an academic. His manner is cordial, non-histrionic. In short, he doesn't seem like the kind of guy who'd defend Hitler to his mother.

Shalwitz is ruefully embarrassed at this memory. He grew up in Buffalo in a family that followed Conservative Judaism. His parents were children of immigrants, in a position to appreciate personally exactly how much damage Hitler had done. Then one day in the mid-'60s, in a scene out of Philip Roth, in walks Howard, philosophy book under his arm, idealism in his youthful heart, and ready to smash a taboo.

"As a teenager, I went a little crazy with the idea of determinism. I remember arguing with my mother that Hitler wasn't evil, just monumentally screwed up. At one point I decided that the answer to all the world's problems was some form of mass psychiatry, and for some years after, I wanted to be a psychiatrist."

This was before he wanted to be a philosophy teacher (his BA from Wesleyan University is in philosophy, his MA from Brown in teaching). Which was before he wanted to start a theater. Which a few years later he did, along with colleagues Roger Brady and Linda Reinish.

When Woolly Mammoth got started, there was only a fledgling small-theater scene in Washington. A number of little non-Equity companies were producing whenever and wherever they could. Studio Theatre was just beginning, and Source was digging itself into its small space not far away on 14th Street. Horizons Theatre was at its most vital, and the present-day Church Street Theater housed the five-year-old New Playwrights' Theatre, now defunct. Local television personality Davey Marlin Jones ran the Washington Theatre Club. The Shakespeare Theatre, very much pre-Michael Kahn, was still using the museum-of-the-Globe stage at the Folger Library, and Arena, then as now one of the country's flagship regional theaters, towered over everyone from its two-stage complex in Southwest.

From the beginning, Woolly came out swinging. The theater's first manifesto declared it was dedicated to "resolving the contradiction between advance of the art form and appeal to an audience."

Actually, despite an early all-improvised production ("a disaster," says Shalwitz), Woolly quickly became known for the content of its plays rather than its style of presentation. The ideal Woolly Mammoth play is uncompromising but hilarious, critical of mainstream American values, particularly those of the family, unafraid of sensitive subjects, and not stylistically confined by realism. In short, exactly like Paula Vogel's "How I Learned to Drive."

Which was produced at Arena. This year.

Shalwitz nods when an interviewer makes this point.

He acknowledges that "Hot 'n' Throbbing"--another play by Vogel, to be done at Arena next month--is the sort of play he might have done. So is "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," which was produced last season at Studio.

Twenty years after Woolly was founded, when the culture has moved to embrace the outre, how does an outre theater retain its critical edge?

"Our big challenge," he says, "is holding on to our edge when other theaters are now doing what would once have been categorized as 'Woolly plays.' "

Woolly hasn't exactly stood still these past two decades. In the mid- to late '80s, the theater's energy came from a company of actors that included Robinette, Grover Gardner, the late Grainne Cassidy, TJ Edwards and Michael Willis. And sometimes Shalwitz himself, an excellent actor who in the opinion of many doesn't work onstage enough. This was the period of the hilarious emotional implosions of "Christmas on Mars," the scathing moral criticism of "Aunt Dan and Lemon," the mad sanity of Don DeLillo's "The Day Room."

Then about 10 years ago, the emphasis began to shift from the actors to the scripts, as "plays I found very exciting didn't have roles for the company." Yet at the same time, it was also becoming harder for Woolly to get the rights to the plays it wanted, a change from the early days when "there was nothing we wanted to produce that anybody else was interested in."

This was the shift that led to the discovery and national launching of the uproarious and outlandish Nicky Silver, whose "Fat Men in Skirts" premiered at Woolly in 1991, the first of four Silver productions over the next six years. That introduced Washington audiences to the creepy world of Doug Wright, whose "Watbanaland" dramatized father-infant competition, while his "Quills" gave audiences a sympathetic look at the Marquis de Sade.

The shift led to "The Psychic Life of Savages," Amy Freed's smart, ruthless take on the lives of four famous American poets, as well as to her less fully developed "Freedomland." To the new plays of African Americans Regina Porter ("Man, Woman, Dinosaur") and Robert Alexander ("The Last Orbit of Billy Mars"), playwrights working in a different area than the dominant political realism of August Wilson.

And it led to what Shalwitz calls "Woolly lite," less abrasive Woolly productions, such as Bill Corbett's yuppie-satire "The Big Slam" and Christi Stewart -Brown's soft and upbeat "The Gene Pool," in which it was demonstrated that lesbians too could have a sitcom life.

In the process, Woolly has become an important transition point in a national network of new play production, often producing plays from lesser-known theaters that then move on around the country. "We try to find the most exciting new writers," says Shalwitz, "produce them, then promote their work to other theaters. Our role in the national theater community is to help a writer in the early stages of his or her career."

For anyone who has attempted to produce new plays, Shalwitz's record of turning novice scripts into full-blooded theater experiences is mind-boggling. His audiences, unaware of the backstage rigors of the task, simply appreciate that they usually come out of a new play at Woolly feeling they've seen something rather than that they've been subjected to an intriguing but unsatisfying experiment.

Shalwitz credits his success as a producer of new work to his "traditional approach on the directing side. One of the most important things a director of new plays has to do is analyze a script's strengths and weaknesses, and then emphasize the strengths and hide the weaknesses. And a producer, knowing the script may not be quite finished, has to cover every other base--acting, directing, designing--perfectly."

Of course, when he directs a play himself, he has an added advantage: "I can make myself believe that whatever I'm working on is one of the greatest plays ever written."

A new space will bring a certain liberation, new artistic opportunities. At 12 feet, the present Woolly stage ceiling is too low for anything particularly impressive in the way of lighting. Narrative through the use of images rather than words hasn't been an option for Woolly. "I'd like to work with a stronger visual aesthetic than we can do in our present space, one that supports non-narrative, imagistic plays."

Shalwitz has other ambitions. A little more money, for starters (the theater's annual budget is approximately $1.1 million, on the higher end for small local theaters). Still, at present, "we can rarely afford to do a play with more than six actors." And with more money and a better space, there might be the chance "to work with first-rank directors and designers who would come in and shake up our world." Directors, for example, such as JoAnne Akalaitis, who has worked at the Shakespeare Theatre and Arena.

Over the past 20 years, Shalwitz has also noticed a psychological shift in Woolly: "We're looking into the wider varieties of approaches to off-centeredness." Which means fewer "neurotic" plays and a "more poetic" direction: "You can have rugged family dissections along with the grace and beauty of poetic diction."

But though the weapon may change, the target remains the same. The Big Lie. The lie that all families are happy. That everything America does is right. That materialism is the route to happiness. At its best, Woolly attacks the biggest lie of all, the one the audience tells itself, that we, living our middle-class lives, are justified in thinking of ourselves as "good" people.

Because if there's one thing I learned from Aunt Dan, I suppose you could say it was a kind of honesty. It's easy to say we should all be loving and sweet, but meanwhile we're enjoying a certain way of life--and we're actually living--due to the existence of certain other people who are willing to take the job of killing on their own backs, and it's not a bad thing every once in a while to admit that that's the way we're living.

--From "Aunt Dan and Lemon," by Wallace Shawn

Howard Shalwitz is still attacking the most sacred taboos he can find.