Out on a limb is not the most comfortable place for a theater company to be, but what's a season under the Big Top without a death-defying act or two? For theatergoers in Washington, the good news this fall is that no major troupe in town is playing it entirely safe. And some, such as Woolly Mammoth and Signature, seem to be making a fetish of freshness, offering a potential bonanza of new comedies, dramas and musicals.

The crisper air of autumn also augurs the arrival (or return) of some major figures to stages in town, from a starry revival of "On Golden Pond" with James Earl Jones and Diahann Carroll to the appearance of Mikhail Baryshnikov in Rezo Gabriadze's "Forbidden Christmas, or the Doctor and the Patient." Both shows are at the Kennedy Center. Andrea Martin is in town for laughs ("The Matchmaker"), and Arena Stage is importing some vaunted figures of the avant-garde -- Everett Quinton, of Ridiculous Theatrical Company renown, and Anne Bogart, the respected experimentalist -- to direct in its spaces for the first time.

These are among the intriguing entries in what seems a season of particular promise for D.C. theater, one that suggests that savvy theater lovers could be in store for an especially generous jolt to the imagination. It's impossible to predict which vehicles will glide and which will sputter and cough, but several offer the possibility of such healthy returns on your investment that it's worth sticking out my own neck to advance their causes. Herewith, five events of the coming months that hold out the hope of rich payoffs:

* Van Gogh, song-and-dance man: Art house-musical composer Michael John LaChiusa ("Marie Christine," "The Wild Party") teams up with Signature's Eric Schaeffer and book writer John Strand to present one of the fall's most intriguing projects, "The Highest Yellow," a new musical exploring madness, obsession and art. (With van Gogh a crucial character, how could it not?) "The Highest Yellow" represents a subscription theater performing its highest calling, introducing its audience to complex work that has been seen nowhere else. This production is, in fact, one of two new musicals Signature is unveiling this season; the other is its current offering, the Vietnam-themed "One Red Flower."

Reflecting the ambitions of its director, Signature has recruited top-rank talent to the show. Among the prominent musical-theater performers in the cast are Judy Kuhn, best known to Washington audiences for her hypnotic portrayal of peculiar, lovelorn Fosca in the Sondheim Celebration's "Passion" at the Kennedy Center, Marc Kudisch, the Barker in the recent Broadway revival of "Assassins," and Jason Danieley, who played the title role in a recent Broadway revival of "Candide" and was in the original casts of "Floyd Collins" and "The Full Monty."

* A MacArthur "genius" on an Elizabethan one: Chicago director Mary Zimmerman is very big on unlikely subjects. Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks, Proust's novels and Ovid's myths have all been fodder for her refined eye for the stage; her playful gift is the ability to create a vivid physical realm for a dense literary topic, a talent she has demonstrated again and again. In 2001, her vision of Ovid's "Metamorphoses," set in and around a 30-foot pool, was not only embraced by Broadway audiences, it also won her a Tony Award for direction.

Now Zimmerman arrives for her initial D.C. assignment, and it sounds like a great fit: She'll direct "Pericles" for the Shakespeare Theatre. Zimmerman, who won a MacArthur Fellowship in 1998, often builds her own narratives on existing literary masterpieces. "Remembrance of Things Past," for instance, was distilled in her "Eleven Rooms of Proust" into 11 arresting tableaux, constructed in a Chicago warehouse.

Not surprisingly perhaps, she's tackling one of Shakespeare's thornier works. "Pericles," which many scholars believe was only partially written by Shakespeare, has proved a challenging play for directors seeking emotional consistency in an episodic plot. Half the fun here will be seeing how faithful Zimmerman is to the text; the other half, no doubt, will be the magic of her stage pictures.

* A tuneup at Ford's: The new producing director, Paul Tetrault, seems to have the zany idea that he can impose some consistent standard on a historic theater known for a rather scattershot approach to programming. In his first season, he's not committing out-and-out heresy -- "A Christmas Carol" is still on Ford's Yuletide platter -- but there are also encouraging signs that change is coming.

He has chosen a pair of American chestnuts, Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker" and Carson McCullers's "The Member of the Wedding." Still, he has also lined up a pair of directors with impressive credentials: Mark Lamos ("Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" at the Kennedy Center this summer) will stage "Matchmaker," and Marshall Mason, the longtime collaborator of Lanford Wilson, will take on "Wedding."

First up is Lamos's production (the play was the basis for "Hello, Dolly!"), which features Martin, a brilliant comic actress, as Dolly Levi and Jonathan Hadary as the noted skinflint Horace Vandergelder. Michael Yeargan is designing the sets, and if all goes swimmingly, this could well be the stylish beginning to a new theater life for Ford's.

* Moscow on 14th Street: Artistic director Joy Zinoman spent a month in Russia, boning up for Studio Theatre's gutsy foray into Slavic culture. The new season she's put together of modern Russian plays ("The Russian National Post Office," "Black Milk"), classics ("Ivanov") and riffs on Chekhov ("Afterplay") will expose Washington audiences to the vitality of one of the world's thriving theater cultures. It's a high-concept season placing a premium on strong local actors, including Floyd King, Philip Goodwin and Holly Twyford.

* "Movin' Out," movin' in. Ordinarily, the arrival of a touring company is the occasion for a long sigh and weary droop of the shoulders. But the National is likely to be a more magnetic touring house than usual this November, when Twyla Tharp's smashing rock-and-roll ballet, "Movin' Out," makes its District debut. Danced to the emotion-strumming music of Billy Joel, the show is an elegy to the free-spirited '60s and the crushing loss of innocence that followed.

A footnote: By the time "Movin' Out" is in full swing, the Washington theater's building boom will be as well. Studio Theatre is to inaugurate its expanded complex this fall, with a third theater (to open with the aforementioned "Ivanov") and a new see-through atrium lobby. Woolly Mammoth will follow shortly thereafter in a new home at Seventh and D streets NW. Filling these and a variety of other new spaces to come will constitute a high-wire act at a whole other level.

Mikhail Baryshnikov in "Forbidden Christ- mas," at the Kennedy Center Nov. 10-14.Kristine Bendul and David Gomez in Twyla Tharp's "Movin' Out," at the National in November.Doug Brown in "Our Lady of 121st Street," part of Woolly Mammoth's fall schedule.