As theaterical options and other forms of entertainment increase, Montgomery County's theater companies are taking divergent approaches to the upcoming season, hoping to attract new patrons and keep loyal ones coming back.
The 2005-06 theater season gets into full swing this month, and some troupes are opting for what they consider the safe route, choosing plays and musicals that have been around for years. Other theater companies believe their futures lie in attracting audiences eager for newer, often edgier works.
Consider, for example, the schedules of two of the county's most prominent professional theater companies: Olney Theatre Center for the Arts and the Round House Theatre, which has stages in Bethesda and Silver Spring. Both groups have substantial capital investments to protect in newly opened facilities.
Olney Theatre Center, which recently completed a $10 million expansion and now has three stages, has crafted a season that is heavily reliant on older shows, many of which are perennial staples of community theater. Round House has taken the opposite approach, hoping to create a new generation of theatergoers and attract younger patrons with a roster of productions bearing unfamiliar names and promising less predictable experiences.
With a season full of such community-theater favorites as the musical "Oliver!" and the period drama "The Heiress" as well as the Cole Porter musical "Anything Goes," it will take a full year for something brand new to come to Olney. Next September, the company will stage the premiere of Irene Wurtzel's "In the Mood," focusing on the worlds of art, diplomacy and marriage. The play will be performed in Olney Theatre's Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab.
But Round House has put together a season filled with much-more contemporary work. Through Sunday "Camille," a stage adaptation of Verdi's opera "La Traviata," is playing on its Bethesda stage. From Oct. 14 to Nov. 6, Round House's Silver Spring theater will stage "The Chairs," an English adaptation of Eugene Ionesco's absurdist play about a reception for imaginary dignitaries. Then the company returns to its Bethesda stage for "A Year with Frog and Toad," a new musical based on Arnold Lobel's books for children.
In February, the theater is offering a probing courtroom drama, "Midwives," about a midwife who gets in trouble performing an emergency cesarean section on a woman who she thought had died in labor.
Battling the two big professional companies for attention is the scrappy Silver Spring Stage, an all-volunteer company that operates a full-time theater in the basement of a small shopping center. Its work is usually of the highest caliber, and the company selects a wide range of thoughtful dramas and comedies.
Currently running is "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife," an interesting study of how a mysterious guest changes the lives of a bored, well-to-do Manhattan housewife and her doctor husband. Other highlights of their seven-show season include Neil LaBute's "The Shape of Things," a chilling study of art, gender roles and obsession with appearance; and "Coyote on a Fence," a drama about crime, punishment and racism.
Quotidian Theatre Company, the low-key, professional group at Bethesda's Writer's Center, performs "The Beginning of Summer" -- a world premiere by playwright Horton Foote -- starting Oct. 21.
Next spring, Quotidian will offer something different from its usual, quiet productions as it stages "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune," Terrence McNally's sexy drama about a one-night stand.
The fledgling professional group Heritage Theatre Company of Chevy Chase is counting heavily on a one-man play based on the life of Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra, the author of "Don Quixote de la Mancha." The show ran last spring, and the theater put aside its schedule to re-run it this season in hopes of attracting a greater audience for the biography, which opens Oct. 21.
Kids who get the chance to go to Bethesda's Imagination Stage, the nationally recognized theater and education facility dedicated to children, will see plenty of new and eclectic material.
Onstage now is a new musical version of "Cinderella." It will be followed by "Seussical," the Broadway musical based on the stories of Dr. Seuss. Then in February, hearing and hearing-impaired performers will stage "Hip Hop Anansi," a hip-hop version of the Ghanaian tale "Anansi the Spider."
Also new and available for young audiences is the original Christmas-themed production of "The Cricket Project" from Red Light Theatre, opening in November at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn.
Rockville's new professional children's group, Break-A-Leg Theater Company, is sticking to familiar material, with "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," playing through Oct. 23, and "Annie Warbucks," the sequel to "Annie," in January.
Rockville Little Theatre may have two of the best highlights of the community theatre season on its schedule, with "The Sisters Rosensweig," the groundbreaking play that made writer Wendy Wasserstein a star, focusing on love, sisterhood, and life, opening in January. Then the company stages the rarely seen and absorbing "The Winslow Boy," about the travails of a family in England before World War I.
Melanie Polk plays Marjorie, a bored Upper West Side Manhattan housewife who suffers a midlife crisis, and Craig Miller plays Ira, her ineffectual but loving husband, in the Silver Spring Stage production of "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife." The production runs through Oct. 23.