Playing for Keeps

Theater isn't dead, but whenever The Lion King gets produced, an Andrew Lloyd Webber show is resurrected or Val Kilmer stars in any musical, the gravediggers look up from polishing their shovels.

And yet there's hope: there have never been as many companies producing theater in Orange County or as many people watching it, and the year ahead looks downright riveting.

Sometime in 2005, Hunger Artists will stage the West Coast premiere of Neil Labute's The Mercy Seat, plus it's considering essaying Marat/Sade. The season starts with Othello, which we hate, loathe and despise—but it's directed by Shannon C.M. Flynn, and we like her, so she gets a free pass till at least after we see it. Hunger Artists, Jan. 13-Feb. 6.

Anaheim Hills-based Chance Theater has a most-frenetic year ahead, with its modern adaptation of Aphra Behn's The Rover, a bawdy, rowdy 17th century comedy. We're not sure if we'll actually like it, but the description begins, “Four present-day teenage girls at a slumber party . . .” Hey, hey. Chance Theater, Jan. 22-Feb. 20.

Stages is still finalizing its season, but its second show of 2005 is Tracers, a play written by Vietnam vets looking back on the personal turmoil they endured in this most unpopular of wars. It is pro-soldier and anti-war; when produced at Fullerton College an eon ago, Tracers was one of the most riveting plays we'd ever seen. Stages Theatre, February/March.

Rude Guerrilla has the most disturbing selection of plays on tap: productions about stalkers, abused women, schizophrenics, stranded astronauts and other paragons of human virtue. Two of the most interesting are the U.S. premiere of Philip Osment's Collateral Damage, a look at Timothy McVeigh's heinous crime and the father who winds up forgiving the killer of his daughter, and The Sacred Geometry of S&M Porn, a new play by OC writer Johnna Adams about a troubled young man with a stack of pornos, a woman raised from the dead, an alcoholic televangelist, an assassination plot, weird sex and a lot of money. First, however, is the West Coast premiere of Ken Urban's The Female Terrorist Project. Urban, who's responsible for The New Jersey Trilogy, one of the trippiest, most disturbing plays ever staged locally, wrote this one about a woman who is documenting the lives of famous female terrorists and winds up getting a visit from the Office of Homeland Security. Sound familiar? Rude Guerrilla, Feb. 4-26.

The first half of South Coast Repertory's year is filled with new plays by contemporary playwrights. There are world premieres by English playwright Christopher Shinn (On the Mountain) and SCR's favorite contemporary playwright, Richard Greenberg (A Naked Girl on the Appian Way), plus two of the most promising female playwrights in the world: Paula Vogel protge Sarah Ruhl (The Clean House) and Brit Lucinda Coxon (Vesuvius).

But the one we're most excited about is the world premiere of Princess Marjorie, the latest play by Noah Haidle, whose Mr. Marmaladewas the best-written and -executed show on a local stage last year. This one is billed as a “hilarious take on the shared memories of two highly imaginative brothers. Reflecting on teen romances gone awry, they fantasize about the object of their affection, once so innocent and perfect. Then she returns for a visit—all grown up.” South Coast Repertory, March 6-27.

The theater with the best location in the county, the Vanguard Theatre Ensemble, has two plays of considerable merit: Frederich Durrenmatt's trippy The Visit, in which a mysterious bitch, er, woman gives a gift to a town—for one doozy of a price, and Raised in Captivity, the funniest dark comedy by Nicky Silver, a guy who showed a lot of promise five years ago but has kind of dropped off the map recently. The Visit: March 11-April 10;Raised in Captivity: June 17-July 17.

Proof that the Laguna Playhouse has long shed its ossified community-theater status lies in the fact it's producing The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, a play written by former performance artist/notorious transvestite Charles Busch, a freakily talented dude whose plays include Vampire Lesbians of Sodom; Gidget Goes Psychotic; and Die, Mommie, Die!

The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, about a middle-aged woman living the tony New York life on the Upper West Side who is plunged into a midlife crisis of Medea-like proportions, broke Busch into the mainstream. Laguna Playhouse, May 24-June 26.

In other news, the Insurgo Theater Movement is searching for a new theater and, like the Maverick, which has found a new space in Fullerton but will spend a great deal of the first part of the year working on it, will have a shortened season. Head honcho John Beane says plans are in the works later in the year for an African-American Hamlet, kind of a '70s serious blaxploitation version. The Orange County Performing Arts Center is hosting the touring production of Billy Joel's musical Moving Out this fall, and rumor has it that this summer at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center will include a three-week run of one of the dumbest, silliest and most successful storefront-theater adaptations in county history, The Misanthrope: The Karaoke Musical. You know, the one where Molire's satire of love and hypocrisy is moved to a karaoke lounge.

Talk about letting a song go out of your heart.

Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???

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