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On the Fringe & In the Running

Seattle's ninth Annual Fringe Fest breaks records, and Toronto's Chalmers Awards announces this year's nominees.

Seattle

Seattle's ninth Annual Fringe Festival has just ended, and though the final results haven't been tallied, it seems to have been a banner year. Halfway through the Festival the staff reported a 24% increase over last year's box office, shows were routinely selling out, and both the NEA and Disney deigned to send representatives to look over some of the 70-odd acts that were featured in the 10-day event.

Yes, there were some adjustments from years past, partly based upon a deficit running from last year. The attempts by former Fringe Director Michael Olich to move the venues down from the festival's traditional home on Capitol Hill into downtown Seattle proved too much ground for the audiences to cover, and this year marked a tactical retreat to the stages (and converted stages) of the Hill. The smaller budget also meant less of a presence via posters and banners than in years past; but while there were 11 fewer companies participating than in last year's festival (79 down from 90), there were considerably fewer solo shows, a welcome change from the increasingly spare and solipsistic content of earlier years.

Several more-established theatres also entered the festival with productions, including mid-sized theatre Taproot (with Sean Gaffney's original adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel Moreau) and Greenstage (best known for its free Shakespeare-in-the-Park shows). The active fringe companies Open Circle, Stickfigure, OPM, Theatre Babylon, and Dappin' Butoh participated along with the more usual "once-a-year" entrants and the handful of out-of-town touring shows.

The participation of these more-established groups is partly a reflection on the smaller but more-seasoned Seattle fringe scene, which has been more notable for quality of shows than the sheer quantity of recent years. But it also bodes well for the Seattle theatre community as a whole. Seeing that the last 12 months have seen the demise of mid-sized theatres including The Group, Center Stage, and the Bathhouse, it may also be a sign that the Seattle theatre community as a whole has recognized that to find support from audiences and fundraisers, it's first necessary to demonstrate support for each other.

The Seattle Fringe Theatre Festival ran March 10-21, at nine different venues on Capitol Hill.

John Longenbaugh

Toronto

The Chalmers Awards are the richest prizes available to Canadian artists. The two given to playwrights‹the Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Awards and the Chalmers Canadian Play Awards: Theatre for Young Audience‹amount to $150,000 (Canadian), with four awards to be made in the first category and two in the second at a May ceremony.

Awards are open to Canadian playwrights whose work has premiered in Toronto during the past calendar year, with jurying done by local members of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association and delegates of the professional theatre community. There's a definite cachet even for nominations‹10 in the senior category and five in the children's division‹since a nomination is a selling point to other theatres across the country when a writer tries to rustle up that often-elusive second production.

New and established playwrights are in the running for the 1999 awards. Not surprisingly, a pair of George F. Walker's plays from his six-show Suburban Motel series‹"Risk Everything" and "The End of Civilization"‹picked up two nominations; another from the series, "Problem Child," was an easy winner in 1998. Other previous winners receiving nominations are Michael Marci Bouchard (The Orphan Muses), Morris Panych (Lawrence & Holloman), Daniel Brooks and Guillermo Verdecchia (Insomnia) and Jason Sherman (Patience).

Other nods went to Colleen Murphy (Beating Heart Cadaver), David Gow (Cherry Docs), Anton Piatigorsky (Easy Lenny Lazmon and the Great Western Ascension) and the collective creators of The Betrayal: Leah Cherniak, Oliver Dennis, Maggie Huculak, Robert Morgan, Martha Ross, and Michael Simpson.

Morgan also figured prominently in the theatre for young audiences list, as author of The General and co-writer, along with David S. Craig, of Dib and Dob and the Journey Home. The three other nominees in the category were Ann Powell's puppet show Bed & Breakfast, Cherniak's Nervous and Leslie McCurdy's The Spirit of Harriet Tubman.

The award, increased a few years ago from $10,000 to $25,0000, is a practical lifeline for writers. It gives winners a chance to take a year off from the traditional job-juggling that artists often have to suffer and concentrate instead on writing their next scripts.

Jon Kaplan

Twin Cities

What seems at first like a surprising selection of plays to be presented on The Guthrie Theater's main stage during the upcoming 1999-2000 season is really just a natural extension of Sir Tyrone Guthrie's ultimate goal for the classical regional theatre he established here in the Twin Cities in 1963.

As the millennium approaches, Joe Dowling, artistic director of the Guthrie, has selected works by playwrights who have long been recognized as authors of classical masterworks, along with new plays by dramatists whose works seem likely to become classics in the future. The season starts with Sheridan's School For Scandal (June 23-July 18), directed by Joe Dowling. Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! follows (Aug. 4-29) directed by Douglas Wager, whose 1997 production of You Can't Take It With You broke box office records. The North American premiere of Martin Guerre a new musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg (creators of Les Mis rables), will take place Sept. 28-Nov. 7, to be directed by Connall Morrison, and choreographed by David Bolger, with whom Dowling previously worked in Irish theatre.

Barbara Field's adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol will return for its 25th time as the Guthrie's holiday presentation (Nov. 26-Dec. 26); and George Bernard Shaw will begin the 21st century with Misalliance, which he wrote in the early 20th century. Neil Monroe, with

Twin Cities

credits from the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, will direct the Guthrie's first staging of this Shavian comedy. In a co-production between the Guthrie and the Penumbra Theatre Company, The Darker Face of the Earth by Rita Dove, will be directed by Lou Bellamy, founder and artistic director of the Penumbra (March 8-April 2, 2000).

And finally, the season will end with Sean O'Casey's The Plow and the Stars (April 26-May 21, 2000), directed by Joe Dowling, who considers this "one of the greatest plays of 20th-century Irish drama."

Meanwhile, in a converted warehouse in northeast Minneapolis, Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd directed by John Miller-Stephany, will inaugurate the Guthrie Lab's own season, this June 4-20. Arthur Miller's newest play, Mr. Peters' Connections (Nov. 3-21), is perhaps the most eagerly awaited at either lab or the main stage. Another great American playwright, John Guare, will be represented next year at the Guthrie by a new work, Lake Hollywood (Feb. 9-27, 2000). And finally, the Lab season will end with Side Man, by newcomer Warrren Leight (May 10-28, 2000).

Lucille Stelling

Cleveland

Jeffrey Sweet's The Value of Names, at the Halle Theatre of the Jewish Community Center, could not have been more timely. The play, about a blacklisted actor and the man who betrayed him, and the current Elia Kazan controversy are uncannily similar. In an increasingly commercial theatre climate, plays of ideas are in short supply. That's one of two reasons why Sweet's thought-provoking exploration of principles and friendship is so satisfying. Co-directors Rohn Thomas and Terri Kent and actors Mitchell Fields, Sheri Levy Gross, and Rohn Thomas, as the stool pigeon, provide the other. Names ran through March 21.

A few seasons ago, Los Angeles playwright Lisa Loomer joined the fray of contemporary works about death and dying with The Waiting Room. It's running here, at Dobama Theatre, through March 28. The sprawling, caustic tragicomedy tackles everything from cancer and health care to Freud and the beauty industry with considerable humor and wit. But an overload of subjects proves distracting and robs the play of its dramatic focus. Standouts in director Scott Plate's uneven production include Chuck Richie, Victoria Karnafel, and Joel Hammer.

Following glowing reviews in Columbus, The Taste of Sunrise moved north to Cleveland State University's Factory Theatre, through March 28. Suzan Zeder's moving play about a rural deaf boy growing up in the 1920s is a co-production of Cleveland Signstage Theatre‹a company that performs in English and American Sign Language for deaf and hearing audiences‹and Contemporary American Theatre Company in Columbus. Director Steven C. Anderson's seamless production and an ace cast prove there should be more of them.

Love, Janis, a rock musical based on the letters of Janis Joplin, is at The Cleveland Play House, through April 4. The musical biography, based on the eponymous book written by Janis' sister, Laura, was conceived and adapted by Randal Myer, who also directs. Catherine Curtin is the dramatic Janis, while Beth Hart and Andra C. Mitrovich alternate as the singing '60s rock icon.

A Raisin in the Sun comes to Great Lakes Theater Festival at the Ohio Theatre, Playhouse Square, March 18-April 3. The Lorraine Hansberry classic is directed by L. Kenneth Richardson and stars Irma P. Hall, Billy Eugene Jones, and Yvette Ganier, amongst others.

Frances Heller

Atlanta

Once touted by legendary director John Huston as "one of the three or four greatest actresses in the world," theatre and film veteran Mary Nell Santacroce was lovingly eulogized before 600 mourners at a Feb. 25 memorial, following her death on Feb. 17. Best known for playing the title character in "Driving Miss Daisy" in Atlanta, Santacroce ironically succeeded her own daughter Dana Ivey, who first embodied "Daisy" farther north, Off-Broadway.

Atlanta's beleaguered Downtown at last inaugurated its first resident theatre company in the hood, when Theatrical Outfit opened Our Town at the sumptuously restored Rialto Theatre, March 10. Once a drug-shooting gallery masquerading as a movie theatre, the resurrected Rialto now headlines luminaries like Bernadette Peters in its smash concert series, and at 833 seats is the largest home for a theatre troupe in the city. Under the whip of its genial but driven artistic director, Tom Key, the 20-year-old Theatrical Outfit now runs a $1 million dollar operation in a space so crystalline that no microphones are ever necessary.

Dramatic amplification is desirable for Our Town, too sanctimonious under Jill Jane Clements' direction. As Emily, Susie Grimley is the most enlivening, a supernova all her own‹shining in Ken Yunker's cosmological lighting design. The production runs through March 28.

Attitude rules in Actor's Express' southeast premiere of As Bees in Honey Drown (March 11-April 30). Pat Cook directs quicksilver scenes cued to bombastic rock. As the Medusa Alexa, Suzanne Roush gorges on Trent Merchant's guilelessness. Merchant eloquently conveys the suffering of the young artist.

Two noteworthy runs recently closed. For the past five winters, Soulstice Rep has mounted three solid productions on the shortest of shoestrings; this year's The Three Sisters (Feb. 11-March 14), together with Great Expectations and Twelfth Night were the epitome of ensemble playing, through Artistic Director Heidi Cline's art. For a welcome revival, Jomandi Productions showcased Atlantan Marsha Jackson-Randolph's Sisters (Feb. 19-March 7), wherein a cleaning lady (Peggy Blow) and a corporate buppie (Phyllis Yvonne Stickney) generate a fairly credible bond under Andrea Frye's often hilarious direction. Immune to inhibition, Ms. Blow stole the show.

Dave Hayward

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis will open its 1999-2000 season with the first major production of Lanford Wilson's The Book of Days, directed by Wilson' s long-time collaborator, Marshall Mason. The play, which had a brief appearance at Michigan's Purple Rose Theatre, will open Sept. 10 and run through Oct. 8. With one play still to be announced, the Rep's season also includes Much Ado About Nothing, Oct. 15-Nov. 12; Into the Woods, Dec. 3-31; The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Jan. 7-Feb. 4; and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Feb. 11-March 10.

In current action, Scott Miller, whose New Line Theatre marches to its own drummer and takes a different view of theatrical productions, has done it again. The well-known war horse Camelot has been produced by New Line in the small church basement it calls home, and it works surprisingly well. Miller has stripped all the frou-frou and frippery from the Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe musical based on T. H. White's The Once and Future King," and while some of the appeal is gone, much remains, and the impact is extremely different. By trimming the cast and the costumes and by downsizing many of the bigger production numbers, Miller forces his audience to pay attention to the lyrics and to the libretto. This puts a shadow on the musical, but perhaps it's a shadow the authors wanted. From time to time, however, Loewe's music works against it.

Ted Cancila is an excellent Arthur, battling his various impulses and truly agonizing over the happenings. As Lancelot, Karl E. Berberich worked on a single level, often proper but not totally successful, and a colorful tattoo marred his royal biceps for a 20th-century audience. Deborah Sharn was a lovely Guenevere, if slightly too flirtatious with the other knights, and Kimi Short is a showstopper as Nimue. Steve Johnson, doubling as Pellinore and Merlin, let his accent drift the length and breadth of the British Isles. Camelot runs through March 28.

Closer at hand, the Lyceum Theatre in little Arrow Rock, Mo., will have a nine-play season, opening June 9 and closing Oct. 24. The Wizard of Oz is the first show, followed by South Pacific and Shenandoah, with the three musicals running into mid-July. Tapestry, Don't Dress for Dinner, The Trip to Bountiful, and Death of a Salesman will work in repertory through Labor Day, with Cotton Patch Gospel and Voice of the Prairie rounding out the season.

JOE POLLACK

Ohio productions are going places. While Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park's acclaimed recent production of Thunder Knocking on the Door is headed for Broadway, Dayton's Human Race Theatre and Indianapolis' Phoenix Theatre are taking Jeffrey Hatcher's new farce Mother Russia to Chicago. Keith Glover's Thunder‹a Southern fable that evolved into a full-fledged musical after winning the American Theatre Critics Association's Osborn Award in 1997‹will be remounted in Cleveland and Philadelphia this summer with the same cast and director (Glover), prior to a November opening in New York.

Mother Russia (through March 21 in Dayton) was coproduced and previously performed at Indianapolis' Phoenix Theatre and opens March 26 for a month's run at Chicago's Theatre Building. This "Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Russian World'' amply displays Hatcher's gift for hilarious gab and quirky characters, including a fundamentalist American couple (a very funny Tony McDonald and Diane Kondrat), an oil-greedy businessman (Rich Komenich), and a Russian con woman (Deborah Sargent). Unlike Hatcher's best plays (Scotland Road, Three Viewings), Russia's humor is only skin deep, with plot-twisting silliness, slapstick, and TV-sitcom quotes making the frenetic second act nonsensical. Director Bryan Fonseca kept the well-cast ensemble on giddy toes. Columbus' Contemporary American Theatre Company is on a 1999 roll, with a luminous revival of The Fantasticks (through April 11) following superb productions of How I Learned to Drive and The Taste of Sunrise. Under Dudley Swetland's direction, the strong nine-member ensemble balances sincerity and playfulness, with John Kuhn especially subtle as El Gallo.

Columbus' Shadowbox Cabaret is struggling after a fire March 1 destroyed its downtown home and about $400,000 of sets, costumes, props, lighting, and computers. The troupe is performing elsewhere, including at an April 1 "Fireball'' party, to raise $50,000 for uninsured losses. More than $12,000 was raised in the first two weeks. Shadowbox is searching for another downtown space, while plans continue to open a second cabaret this summer in the new Easton Center.

Westerville's Otterbein Summer Theatre will present Alan Ayckbourn's How the Other Half Loves (June 24-July 10), Neil Simon's Proposals (July 15-31), and Steven Dietz's Private Eyes (Aug. 5-15).

MICHAEL GROSSBERG

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