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Shakespeare Theatre Company imports successes from New York and abroad

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Reflecting the growing hunger among Washington’s nonprofit theaters to expand their audience base and diversify their offerings, Shakespeare Theatre Company will serve as the launching site for a national tour of the original production of “Fela!,” the unconventional, Broadway-tested musical about the life of the Nigerian singer-activist Fela Kuti.

Shortly after the month-long stay this fall of “Fela!” in the 775-seat Sidney Harman Hall, the troupe’s Lansburgh Theatre will serve as the American staging ground for another theatrical event: British actor John Hurt in the Samuel Beckett absurdist classic “Krapp’s Last Tape.”

The significance of the additions to the schedule of the city’s leading classical company goes beyond whatever appeal each of these artistically intriguing projects has for the region’s theatergoers. They also represent another advance in an increasingly lively campaign by the capital’s flagship companies to open more widely doors to performers and productions that previously might have bypassed Washington.

This perhaps coincidental collective initiative has gained traction across the city but is most apparent in the agendas of two prominent institutions. The Shakespeare has taken the lead with British and Irish theaters, hosting well-received and -attended visits this season by Tricycle Theatre’s “The Great Game: Afghanistan” and the National Theatre of Scotland’s “Black Watch.” (“Krapp’s Last Tape” comes courtesy of Ireland’s Gate Theatre.) Arena Stage, by contrast, is embarked on a more domestic trajectory, inviting in Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and its “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” this season, and next, Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Equivocation” and the Goodman Theatre of Chicago’s “Red.”

Although the Kennedy Center remains the arts outpost with the broadest boundary-crossing reach, the presentational fever has been spreading to organizations with more modest budgets. Studio Theatre, for instance, welcomed Druid Theatre of Ireland and its “Penelope” into a festival of the work of Irish dramatist Enda Walsh, and Theater J made a home for the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv’s provocative “Return to Haifa.”

These burgeoning links to the outside theater world are helping redefine the role that mid-size and larger regional theaters can play in a crossroads, cosmopolitan city: heretofore a theater such as the Shakespeare or Arena was essentially the sum of the five, six or seven home-grown shows it whipped up every year. The craftsmanship, of course, comes in striking a balance, so imported productions don’t divert artistic energy from a company’s core programming. One senses that the Shakespeare is still fine-tuning its search for that equilibrium; this season, the most exciting drama in Harman Hall has been from Britain.

Even so, the diverse new enhancements to the 2011-12 season’s schedule seem both different from and yet compatible with the Shakespeare program. After all, the concert-style “Fela!,” directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, is in no way standard Broadway fare, and its effort to communicate the essence of Kuti’s story and philosophy through the rhythm of Afro-beat gives it geopolitical heft; it’s a musical for a city with the world at its feet.

“It was clear to me it wasn’t a work that would have a traditional path,” said Shakespeare’s managing director, Chris Jennings. That made it appropriate, he added, for a hall such as the Harman, which has roughly half the seating of the theaters that normally house Broadway musicals. Although “Fela!” ran for more than a year on Broadway, some associated with the critically lauded production, including Jones, were disappointed it didn’t have a longer stay. Its subsequent success at London’s National Theatre — where it will return for a second engagement before its Washington premiere — bolstered the argument for the Harman as a venue.

“It will sit beautifully in the Harman,” “Fela!” lead producer Stephen Hendel said by phone from Lagos, Nigeria, where the musical is giving a week of performances. “Being in an undersized theater is more powerful than being in an oversized theater.”

“Fela!” begins performances in the Harman with its original Broadway cast Sept. 13 and will run through Oct. 9; tickets go on sale to the general public in late May.

“Krapp’s Last Tape” starts in the Lansburgh on Nov. 29 and runs through Dec. 4. Hurt, an accomplished stage actor known to American moviegoers for a variety of performances, but perhaps most memorably as John Merrick in 1980’s “The Elephant Man,” has had a long association with Beckett’s one-man play and the Gate production; in 2000, he appeared in a film version, directed by Atom Egoyan. After the Washington engagement, he is expected to take the performance to New York.

It was Hurt’s participation that sealed the compact with the Gate. As Jennings noted, “Beckett is not everybody’s cup of tea. You’ve got to do it with high-caliber work.”

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