You'll have news enough in the coming weeks about the fatter entries in the fall theater derby, shows such as "Wicked," the hit musical prequel to "The Wizard of Oz," all but guaranteed to sell out a Yuletide run at the Kennedy Center. Or "Damn Yankees," the musical about a league-leading Washington baseball club (for those who really believe in magic) that opens at Arena Stage late in the fall. It's got going for it hometown boy Brad Oscar, of "The Producers" fame, in the role of the Devil.
These are (one hopes, anyway) the type of crowd-pleasing productions that will require little introduction. What a Washington theatergoer needs to study more closely is the back of the menu, the chronicle of exotic orders that offers the greater potential for seasonal surprise.
It is tough to handicap which of the riskier ventures, with their alarming, ambitious and sometimes even perplexing themes, will lodge in the consciousness most powerfully. One of the enduring rewards of the theater is the pleasure of the unanticipated, the scene or set or performance that stays with a spectator long after the ticket stub's been discarded and the playbill has started to fray.
Here, then, in chronological order, is a short list -- inspired by intuition and curiosity much more than inside knowledge -- of what might make for an offbeat, stimulating evening in Washington theater this fall:
* "A Number," this month at Studio Theatre. Caryl Churchill, the ingenious British playwright ("Far Away"), weighs in with a drama about identity that asks the fascinating question: If there were extra copies of you, what kind of crowd would you make? Churchill often offers transfixing commentary on contemporary life, and on this occasion, she trains her sights on the mind-bending, ethically complex issue of cloning.
Ted van Griethuysen and Tom Story are father and sons in an enigmatic and, one hopes, moving drama. With Studio's artistic head, Joy Zinoman, in the director's chair for this regional premiere, Churchill explores the ways technology can complicate the already complicated calculus of family love.
* "Passion Play, a Cycle," this month at Arena Stage. With "The Clean House," her funny, lyrical and humane portrait of mortality -- staged recently at, among other places, Woolly Mammoth -- the young dramatist Sarah Ruhl established herself as a theatrical contender. ("The Clean House" was a Pulitzer Prize finalist this year.) Now comes a work of even more daring and scope -- a staging of the Passion play in three epochs, including our own.
This world premiere at Arena Stage, directed by Molly Smith and clocking in at about 31/2 hours, is a direct challenge to those who view the future of American drama as a series of visits to Short Attention Span Theater. If it clicks, the evening will pass in a whirl.
* "The Beard of Avon," in October at Rorschach Theatre. As usual, there's lots of Shakespeare to choose from this fall, from the newly rechristened Shakespeare Theatre Company's "Othello" and "The Comedy of Errors," to Folger Theatre's "Much Ado About Nothing," to an all-male version of "The Winter's Tale" by the Propeller Theatre Company, a British troupe that will visit the Kennedy Center in November. The most playful serving of the Bard, however, may come from a living writer: Amy Freed, whose smart farce makes its local debut with the scrappy Rorschach Theatre.
"The Beard of Avon" is Freed's clever (if a bit overextended) riff on the endless debate over whether Shakespeare's plays were really written by Shakespeare. Her Will Shakspere cannot, in fact, read or write; he's a hick, not even a hack, who serves as a mere frontman for . . . well, you'll have to discover the rest on your own.
* "Kingdom" and "Draft Day," in November at African Continuum Theatre. Ensconced in its new home, the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE, African Continuum is taking the time, admirably, to showcase new plays. In this case, particularly, the challenge is steep: running two new works in repertory. The plays, by David Emerson Toney ("Kingdom") and Marvin McAllister ("Draft Day"), take on subjects that involve cutthroat manipulation and big egos: One is about "Richard III," the other, the NBA draft.
Please view the above as merely the start of a conversation. More benefit can be reaped by perusing the fall schedule and finding a surprise of your own.