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Greek tragedy meets sci-fi in 'Planet Claire'

The way-out idea for what Tad Janes describes as his "B-52's, science fiction, go-go musical," Planet Claire, struck him three years ago on a road trip to South Carolina.

Driving late at night, while his baby daughter slept, Janes was listening to the post-punk sounds of the B-52's when a song called "Hero Worship" caught his attention. "It's an intense song," Janes says of the lyrics about a woman crying over the body of her dead lover.

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"There's a whole section of the song that is just moaning and wailing and screaming. When I was listening to it, I thought, 'This is so Greek tragedy.'"

He also realized that many of the B-52's songs have shared themes. "Science fiction is one; love is another one. And so I thought, what if you take the stories in these songs and toss them together with a Greek tragedy? Now that's entertainment -- a science fiction love story with a Greek chorus."

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Janes, who is artistic director of the Maryland Ensemble Theatre in Frederick, had never written a musical. But by the time he got back to Frederick, he had "pieced the thing together ... and tried to figure out what songs would work best and how it would flow."

The plot he came up with focuses on a waitress named Claire who is knocked unconscious in a car accident and winds up on a planet inhabited by aliens sporting B-52's-style retro clothing and bouffant coiffures. A shy iconoclast on Earth, Claire "learns to stick up for herself and her choices of being an individual," Janes says.

The members of the Maryland Ensemble Theatre -- a 25-person company that has produced two other original works -- were enthusiastic about Janes' idea. Next, the theater obtained the rights to use 10 B-52's songs, including "Rock Lobster," "Love Shack" and the title song.

In April, Planet Claire, which features a cast of 15 and a five-person rock band, debuted with an eight-week run at the Frederick theater. Tonight, it opens a three-week engagement at the Theatre Project.

The 6-year-old Maryland Ensemble Theatre also operates school-touring and social-outreach programs, as well as an improvisational comedy troupe called the Comedy Pigs. But Janes, who is also the director of Planet Claire, says bringing the show to Baltimore is the company's "first major thrust out of our immediate market."

He hopes this initial foray will serve as a pilot for exporting more shows to Baltimore. And who knows where that may lead? "If a play does extraordinarily successfully in Baltimore," he says, "maybe we'll work it up the coast a little bit."

Show times at the Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St., are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturdays and July 7, 2 p.m. July 10 and 7:30 p.m. June 27. Tickets are $20. Call 410-752-8558.

For more theater, classical music and dance events, see Pages 33 and 34.


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