Georgetown Classical Theater is presenting "Measure of Measure" Wednesdays through Sundays through Sept. 9 at 8 p.m. at the ASTA Theater, 507 8th St. SE.
A play by Bertolt Brecht about a prostitute who wants to be kind but finds that only the ruthless and greedy survive; a drama by Alberto Moravia about a Renaissance noblewoman who, abused by her father, gets revenge by having him murdered; and a Shakespearean play about a woman who can save her brother's head from the block only by sleeping with the judge - this is hardly your light, summer theather fare.
But for a group of recent college graduates called the Georgetown Classical Theater, the season at the ASTA Theater on Capitol Hill is not fun and games, either on stage or off.
Members of the Georgetown Classical Theater are serious about being actors. They call themselves "pre-professionals" because, despite their aspirations, they haven't been able to swing things so they can get paid.
The material they presents is written by well-known, well-established authors, but they still are taking a chance. With scarcely two years of experience under their belts, they decided to kick in their savings, hit their friends, parents and local business executives for contributions and rent a theater for three months of performances, five nights a week.
"We're trying to create an image for GCT," said Ken Kelleher, the group's executive director. "We're saying, 'We are chameleons - we'll do any kind of style.' There isn't another group in the area that says, 'We'll do anything we want.'"
More established groups with large financial stakes, he explained, have to worry more about what will sell. Community groups, on the other hand, may settle on less ambitious material.
Other little groups are intimidated by doing Shakespeare. They bow to him and pray to him and say you need lots of people and lots of money to do Shakespeare. But you don't need to be the Royal Shakespeare Company to do 'Measure for Measure,' because we're doing it," said Kelleher.
The results of their gamble have been mixed. The first play GTC presented this summer, "The Good Woman of Setzuan," frequently filled ASTA's small, 70-seat theater, said Kelleher. The play, "Beatrice Cenci," performed in ASTA's larger, 160-seat theater, played to small audiences and at least one performance was cancelled.
"We wanted to do a modern play, a classical play and take a chance on a third play - what I call a 'dark horse' play," said Kelleher. Thus, they chose Brecht, Shakespeare, and for the dark horse, "Beatrice Cenci," the only full-length play by Alberto Moravia, the prominent Italian novelist and essayist who wrote "The Conformist."
"Beatrice Cenci" shares a common theme with the two other plays GCT is performing this summer - the theme of a woman faced with a moral decision on which hinges her own survival or that of her family. Kelleher says that the choice of theme is not a feminist statement, but a way to explore universal problems of morality and hypocrisy.
Unlike the other two plays, "Beatrice Cenci" has not been performed before in the United States. The director of the GCT version, Alan Altimont, hoped that an American premier would make a name off the ground, but that is what taking a chance is about, he said.
Altimont, now a Ph.D. candidate in English literature at the University of Minnesota, met Kelleher while acting in student productions at Georgetown University. So did the other member of what Kelleher calls the "core group" - Chuck Duncombe, a 1978 Georgetown graduate who supports himself by working part time, for a consulting firm, and Joanne Munisteri, who works part time as a paralegal assistant and hosts a weekly talk show for WGTB radio. Munisteri is the group's manager.
In addition to acting, the four also build sets, make costumes, design the programs, take tickets and sweep the floor. They started working together as GCT in 1976 and have since produced several plays and workshops in theater space donated by Georgetown University. This year, budgets cuts at Georgetown meant that GCT had to find a new home - and pay rent for it, too.
While Munisteri hopes box office returns will cover the groups's initial investments, she doubts that funds will remain to pay the actors and the set; lighting and costume designers. Because of the lack of pay and the heavy performing and rehearsing schedule, it has been difficult for GCT to build up a troupe of actors from one play to the next. When the curtain closes on "Measure for Measure" in September, Kelleher and Munisteri will go to New York for a two-year training program in acting at Circle in the Square; Altimont will return to graduate school and Duncombe hopes to continue acting and writing. Before they leave, they say they will sit down, look at the books, ask "Was it worth it?" and maybe make plans to regroup next summer and do it all over again.