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TORONTO - A year ago, Factory Theatre had major financial problems--problems so grave that it looked like the company, which helped spearhead the growth of Canadian theatre in the 1970s, would soon lose its pulse altogether.

But Factory found a pair of angels. In early 1997, company founder Ken Gass stepped back in as artistic director and threw his own money and time into Factory to keep it running. Then playwright George F. Walker, associated with the company since its early days, launched the '97-98 Mainstage season with the first three plays in Suburban Motel, a six-pack of scripts that will continue next spring.

Though several of the shows were workshopped by New York's Rattlestick Productions last May, the Factory production marks the first staging of all six plays, which share little in the way of character or plot connection, but are instead united by their setting--a run-down motel room--and their style, a typical Walker blend of dark comedy, wacky characters, and ever-escalating passion.

Two shows--Problem Child and Adult Entertainment--opened in rep in October and were joined in November by Criminal Genius. Enthusiastically received by critics and audiences, they were the most exciting productions of the fall, even though Adult Entertainment--involving some crooked police officers and a legal-aid lawyer involved with one of them--suffered from one piece of unfortunate casting.

The other two shows, though, were splendid. In Problem Child, a young welfare couple work desperately to prove to a conservative, religious social worker that they are fit to retrieve their child from a foster home. The powerful chemistry between Shawn Doyle and Kristen Thomson as the couple made the production crackle, with Thomson giving one of the season's best performances. Criminal Genius reached more into farce than did the other two shows, but it shared with them a sharp and blackly humorous view of the world and a deep sense of humanity that makes characters on the edge of society--and at the edge of their lives--seem recognizable to all of us.

--JON KAPLAN

The Coconut Grove Playhouse production of playwright Emily Mann's adaptation of Having Our Say successfully sidestepped any hint of sentimental overload, while delivering a sweeping drama with splendidly energetic passages and just the right touch of humorous homespun tales. The two-hander, which tells the real-life story of Dr. Bessie Delany and her effervescent sister, Sadie, is buoyed by the engaging performances of Micki Grant (Sadie) and Lizan Mitchell (Dr. Bessie). The work captures the siblings' life-long rapport, as well as the depth of their experiences as African-American women flourishing in a white-dominated society.

Although audiences were not quite as large as those for the Grove's highly successful run of The Sunshine Boys, featuring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall, Having Our Say drew heavily from the area's African-American community during its Dec. 5-21 run. That is in itself an accomplishment of note.

South Florida playwright David Fleisher's Grave Concerns, an unfocused effort at contemporary satire, recently completed a five-week run at Coral Gable's New Theatre (Nov. 20-Dec. 21). Offering eight short skits about the socially unbalanced nature of contemporary society, Fleisher consistently misses the satirical mark as he attempts to traverse the horrors of waiting in long lines at the post office, the panic of buying a new home, and a nightmarish maze of dealing with telephone operators.

Equally disappointing is the mostly non-Equity road show production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's State Fair. The musical is hampered by a flimsy, provincial storyline, a saccharine-laced lead performance by John Davidson, and an ensemble that offers uneven performances at best.

Tropic-Ana--Miami playwright-journalist Diana Montane's drama about the life and tragic death of Cuban-born sculptor Ana Mendieta--received three nights of staged readings (Nov. 21-23) as part of the fourth-annual New Works Lab at New York's INTAR Hispanic Arts Center. The play was inspired by the mysterious death of the diminutive 36-year-old Mendieta, who died in 1985 after plunging nearly nude from the 34th-floor window of her Manhattan apartment. Her husband, whom she had planned to divorce, was arrested on second degree murder--charged, but judged not guilty.

--GEORGE CAPEWELL

Hollywood's cozy, historic Cinegrill kicks off 1998 with Karen Mason belting songs from her new CD, "Better Days," featuring many of her star turns on Broadway, including Sunset Boulevard. The performances, in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, are Jan. 2-11. Les Misƒrables veteran Dana Meller follows with her own collection of Broadway favorites, Jan. 23-24.

The Mark Taper Forum is celebrating the new year with a surprise production of Moisƒs Kaufman's sensational courtroom drama, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. "Not only is Moisƒs Kaufman available in February, but Michael Emerson, who received rave reviews for his startling portrayal of Oscar Wilde, will be able to recreate that role for the Taper," explains Artistic Director Gordon Davidson. "The availability of these two fine artists is an opportunity I could not let go by," adds Davidson. Gross Indecency runs Feb. 19 through March 29, and Kaufman will direct. The production was first produced by the Tectonic Theater Project, in February 1997, at Off-Off Broadway's Greenwich House Theatre, to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of Wilde's release from prison after a conviction for "gross indecency with male persons."

Jumping on the "Wilde Renaissance" bandwagon is a promising new Orange County company, The Hunger Artists, which is mounting an all-male production of The Importance of Being Earnest, in Santa Ana's Artists Village. Founding member Kelly Flynn will set the show in England's "swinging '60s." According to Flynn, "I truly believe that this is how Wilde would have wanted to see his play produced and we have discovered a whole new world of meaning in the text. This experienced cast has taken great advantage of the comic possibilities of this staging." The production plays Jan. 22-Feb. 1.

Moving on to family entertainment, the Orange County Performing Arts Center is introducing Southern California to "Kids' Night on Broadway," an educational program that attracted 10,000 kids to New York Broadway shows last year. OCPAC will offer a free ticket with every full-paying adult ticket to the National Tour of Maltby, Shire, and Weldman's Big, Feb. 10-15.

--JIM VOLZ

The new year has begun with the first production of a new, professional non-Equity theatre company in Milwaukee. Stage West is being formed by actors Jan Nelson, Deborah Solomon, Chad Phillips, and Cathy Eimerman. Unlike most of Milwaukee's small theatre companies, Stage West already has a permanent home--a 200-seat thrust-stage facility in a one-and-a-half-year-old center for the performing arts on the Wisconsin Lutheran College campus. Nelson is director of theatre at the school, which is giving Stage West some financial assistance to get the new company launched.

Stage West debuts with a production of Picnic (Jan. 16-31), and will follow that with Lee Blessing's Two Rooms in the spring. Milwaukee director Amy Zeh has staged Picnic with a cast that includes the company's founders and Kittson O'Neill and James Konacek. Stage West will concentrate on the classics--Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, Molire--and contemporary work with literary value, according to Nelson. "We want to do issue-oriented plays we can learn from, that present challenges," Solomon adds. Plans are to mount two or three productions a season. Actors will be offered contracts and be paid on a stipend-per-production basis.

A well-acted production of Donald Margulies' Found a Peanut gave Milwaukee's Boulevard Ensemble a thought-provoking contrast to the usual holiday fare offered by other theatre companies. An adult play about eight children, ages five to 14, who hang out in a Brooklyn neighborhood, Found a Peanut addresses the loss of innocence in little childhood dramas seldom noticed in the grownup world. The point of conflict is $68, discovered by two of the children in a paper bag buried behind an apartment building. Margulies' direction that adult actors play the children is a key ingredient to the drama's depth and dark edge, and the Boulevard cast, under Mark Bucher's direction, is adept at portraying the often-comic nuances of childish behavior. Megan Powell and Beth Monhollen are wonderfully whiny and manipulative as the two prepubescent girls in the story, and Robert Janacek delivers a well-crafted ambiguous portrait of a rough-and-tumble 12-year-old who is neither all good nor all bad. Scott A. Shulick and Greg Flegel send chills up the spine of anyone who has ever been the target of bullies. Found a Peanut continues through Jan. 18.

--DAMIEN JAQUES

Considerable excitement was generated in the Research Triangle Park recently by a visit to the area by Tony Randall, who expressed a serious interest in relocating his National Actors Theatre to North Carolina. Plans are afoot for a major performing arts complex in the Triangle. Randall, whose efforts to build a permanent acting company in New York have foundered on the rocky shoals of money, got the idea for the move during a visit last year with a friend in Chapel Hill. In an interview with the Raleigh News & Observer, Randall said he was bemoaning the high cost of running his National Actors Theatre in New York City. Randall recalled saying, "If only we could find some place where we'd be welcomed."

His friend had the perfect solution: The Durham-Chapel Hill-Raleigh area, with three major universities, a burgeoning Research Park, and a growing reputation as a retirement mecca, would provide an ideal location for Randall's dream-come-true. So the veteran actor was in the Triangle sorting out possibilities. Critical to the actual implementation of his plan will be the success of Randall's company's production of The Gin Game, starring Julie Harris and Charles Durning, which opens a 13-week national tour next October, in the beautifully restored Carolina Theatre, in Durham.

On the subject of imported talent, the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, in Charlotte, announced a January performance of A.R. Gurney's Love Letters, starring Robert Wagner and Jill St. John.

Also in the Queen City, the Charlotte Repertory Theatre is offering a January production of Athol Fugard's semi-autographical vision for post-apartheid South Africa, Valley Song.

Playmakers Repertory Company recently completed an excellent production of its holiday offering, The Nutcracker: A Play, David Hammond's adaptation of the familiar story. PRC veteran Ray Dooley was a stellar Dosselmeier, and Michelle C.T. Hendrick a beguiling Marie.

--WILLIAM HARDY

"There seems to be an irrepressible desire for theatre in this community," says Live Oak Theatre Artistic Director Don Toner, discussing the company's place in Austin's burgeoning theatre scene. The occasion was the group's recent acquisition of $1.9 million in city bond money for renovating the downtown State Theatre, the old movie house the Live Oak calls home. When the renovations are completed, the auditorium will have been transformed from a Depression-era film venue to a contemporary repertory theatre, with an additional smaller stage for new plays, a cabaret bar, an additional classroom, an office, and a support space.

"When I came here 10 years ago," says Toner, "the objective was to establish a nationally recognized, resident professional theatre," still a new concept in Austin. Toner re-established the then-moribund company, which soon assumed Equity status, and three years ago found a permanent home at the State. "Now with the $1.9 million in hand, we can move forward to the sort of professional theatre that we've been envisioning."

Toner is anticipating LORT status in a couple of years, and looks to the Dallas Theater Center, Houston's Alley Theatre, and the Seattle scene as models for Austin. "Seattle had the Seattle Rep, around which grew 40 professional theatres. That can happen in Austin, around Live Oak, around Zachary Scott Theatre, around whatever professional theatres can survive here."

Speaking of the Alley Theatre, three company members have joined the world-premiere London production of Tennessee Williams' Not About Nightingales, opening at the Cottesloe Theatre on March 5. The first staging of Williams' 1938 play, about a hunger strike in a southern prison, is a joint production of the Alley, the Royal National Theatre of Britain, and the Moving Theatre (directed by Vanessa and Corin Redgrave).

On the boards: Theatre LaB Houston stages John Patrick Shanley's Four Dogs and a Bone (Jan. 7-Feb. 14); the Alley opens Patrick Hamilton's Angel Street (Jan. 9-Feb. 7); the Dallas Theater Center has Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband (Jan. 14-Feb. 8); Theatre Under the Stars (Houston) opens Lerner and Loew's Gigi (Jan. 15-Feb. 1); and Stage West (Fort Worth) declaims Neil Bartlett's Hollywood adaptation of Molire's The Misanthrope (Jan. 16-Feb. 7).

--MICHAEL KING

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