'Ideal' canines share spotlight; Play: The artistic director of the Center Stage production has added dogs to other productions as well, including "The Cherry Orchard."; THEATER


Two performers are making their theatrical debuts in Center Stage's current production of "An Ideal Husband, and though they don't have any lines, chances are, anyone who sees the show won't forget them.

That's because Oliver and Wicket are canines -- a Jack Russell terrier and a Shetland sheep dog -- who alternate in the role of "Dog." Although there is no such role in Oscar Wilde's play, Oliver's owner, Jonna Gane Lazarus explained, "This is really an Irene [Lewis] thing."

This isn't the first time Lewis, artistic director of Center Stage and director of "An Ideal Husband," has added dogs to a production. A Boston terrier and an Irish wolfhound had walk-on parts in Center Stage's 1995 production of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard."

"What really is amazing is what happens to Irene in the company of dogs. She really just melts, and she starts using a whole different language that is not Irene at all to me," said Lazarus, a landscape architect who is a member of the theater's board of trustees and is married to Fred Lazarus IV, president of the Maryland Institute, College of Art.

Explaining how Oliver, a nine-year-old smooth-coated white-and-tan terrier, was cast in the play, Lazarus said, "I got an e-mail that said Irene was looking for a small fluffy dog for 'An Ideal Husband.' To be funny, I e-mailed back, 'I don't have fluffy, but I have small and a more Oscar Wilde dog you will never find.' "

Wicket, the dog who appears in half the performances, belongs to actress Susan Blommaert, who plays Lady Markby, the character who walks the dog on and off stage in its brief but memorable appearance.

Linda Geeson, director of communications at the theater, said Wicket was a last-minute replacement. "Originally a long-haired dachshund was cast, but it was discovered when they began rehearsals that the dachshund had stage fright."

A New York-based actress, Blommaert travels with Wicket. However, Geeson continued, "because Wicket is 11, she originally hadn't thought to put him up for the role, but now that they were one dog short, and they didn't want Oliver to be over-taxed by doing all the performances, they brought Wicket out and auditioned him and he turned out to have fabulous stage presence."

Geeson added that Lewis sent the disappointed dachshund a consolation note and a package of "people" biscuits. And, just as all directors hope their cast members will get along, Geeson said Lewis was especially gratified to learn that Oliver and Wicket are planning to get together for a play date and lunch.

Show times for "An Ideal Husband" at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., are 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7: 30 p.m. most Sundays, matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays, and 1 p.m. Oct. 13, through Oct. 24. Tickets are $10-$40. Call 410-332-0033.

If you want to meet Oliver -- and other Center Stage actors as well -- you'll have a chance Saturday when the theater holds its annual open house, Backstage at Center Stage, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Among the highlights will be hands-on demonstrations in the prop and costume shops (where one of the useful pre-Halloween demos will be how to make stage blood); tours of the theater; a scavenger hunt with prizes including season tickets; and question-and-answer sessions with production staff members and actors, such as Oliver and his "Ideal Husband" colleagues.

Refreshments will be available and there will be supervised activities for toddlers. Admission is free, but reservations are requested to guarantee a specific admission time: 10: 15 a.m., 11 a.m. or 11: 45 a.m. Call 410-332-0033 or e-mail backstage@centerstage.org.

Foote accepts grant

Six plays received grants from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays last week, including the latest play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Horton Foote -- "The Last of the Thorntons," about the last surviving member of a powerful Texas family.

In accepting the award, the 83-year-old playwright remarked, "I'm reminded of what Ruth Gordon said when she got the Academy Award: 'A girl needs a little encouragement.' I love the theater. I've spent my whole life in it, and I wouldn't have spent my life any other way. I get discouraged, but I do believe when I see all these faces and hear all these stories that theater is in very good hands. I think we will prevail."

Foote's award marked the first time the fund had honored father and daughter playwrights; Daisy Foote received a Roger L. Stevens Award, earmarked for promising writers, in 1995. "The Last of the Thorntons" was commissioned by New York's Signature Theatre Company for the 2000-2001 season, the theater's 10th, which will feature new plays by a half dozen previous playwrights-in-residence.

This year's other awards went to Corey Fischer's "See Under: Love" (to be produced by A Traveling Jewish Theatre of San Francisco), Melinda Lopez's "The Order of Things" (Centastage of Boston), Yehuda Hyman's "The Mad Dancers" (San Diego Repertory Theatre), Caleen Sinnette Jennings' "Inns and Outs" (Source Theatre Company of Washington), and Howard Korder's "The Hollow Lands" (South Coast Repertory of Costa Mesa, Calif). Each playwright was awarded $10,000, with another $10,000-$30,000 going to the producing theater.

In addition to these production grants, four playwrights received $2,500 Roger L. Stevens awards -- Christopher Cartmill for "Romeo's Dream," Jeffrey L. Chastang for "Full Circle," Catherine Filloux for "Eyes of the Heart," and S.M. Shephard-Massat for "Waiting to be Invited."

Pub Date: 10/11/99

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