Hard-hitting subjects to take Center Stage

The Baltimore Sun

Center Stage never has been a theater company for wimps, and the slate of six shows to be staged during the 2008-2009 season has the potential to deliver a powerful left hook.

Four of the six shows scheduled for next season take as their subject matter such dark themes as incest, race relations and a terrifyingly toxic marriage. Things lighten up for the first show of the season - a classic light romance - and the last, a mischievous new comedy about backstage antics.

The season contains the qualities that have become Center Stage hallmarks during Irene Lewis' 17-year tenure as the troupe's artistic director.

"Our shows are politically conscious, they are challenging, and at least two of the six address issues that matter to the African-American members of our audience," Lewis says. "But each play also has lightness and poetry and hope. Given what's going on in the world at this point, that's important."

Center Stage's 2008-2009 season will include:

The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder, Sept. 10-Oct. 5. This play, which provided the basis for Hello, Dolly! is the only one of the author's works that Center Stage has not previously mounted. Washington actor Ed Gero will play penny-pinching tycoon Horace Vandergelder, who hires marriage broker Dolly Levi to find him a wife. For the first time in his life, Horace has met his match.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, by Edward Albee, Oct. 22-Nov. 16. Virginia Woolf is possibly the most harrowing depiction ever staged of a middle-class marriage on the rocks - with a twist. Pending approval by playwright Albee, this will be the first time that Center Stage has tackled Virginia Woolf since the theater's original home was torched by an arsonist in 1974.

Caroline, or Change, by Tony Kushner, Dec. 10-Jan. 11. This play explores the uncomfortable relationship between an African-American maid (played by local favorite E. Faye Butler) and the middle-class Jewish family for whom she works.

"Tony really broke the mold in writing this play," Lewis says of the playwright best known for the epic Angels in America. "Who else takes subject matter this serious and turns it into a musical? And who else has laundry-room appliances singing Motown?"

Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine, by Lynn Nottage, Jan. 28-March 8. Considered a companion piece to Nottage's earlier and extremely popular work, Intimate Apparel, Fabulation concerns an upwardly mobile public relations executive who unexpectedly finds herself bankrupt and pregnant, and is forced to move in with her family in the projects.

"We've been looking for plays dealing about the black middle class and not street characters," says Center Stage dramaturg Gavin Witt. "But given what's going on now in the economy, I think a large part of our audience, black and white, will find Undine's crisis recognizable."

'Tis Pity She's A Whore, by John Ford, March 11-April 5. This is the first time Center Stage has mounted a 17th-century revenge drama. This one, about the incestuous love between a brother and a sister, has a moment that rivals the blinding scene in Shakespeare's King Lear for sheer stage gore.

"But it's not unremittingly bleak," Lewis says. "It has innocence and grace, comedy and poetry. And the language is very accessible."

The Understudy, by Theresa Rebeck, April 22, 2009-May 31, 2009. The Understudy, which will be fresh from its world premiere this summer at Massachusetts' Williamstown Theatre Festival, is about a supposedly newly discovered play by Franz Kafka that becomes a surprise hit on Broadway. Rebeck intersperses backstage capers with large chunks of the "lost" text - the latter a sly parody of the metaphysical author's style.


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