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Yes, the Studio Theatre added a theater and an atrium to its complex, and yes, a half-dozen other troupes are readying new auditoriums for debuts in 2005. And sure, this theatrical edifice complex probably signifies a vibrant, healthy cultural community, at least from a fundraising standpoint—though it’s probably worth asking, as the fledgling Washington Theater Review did recently, whether D.C.’s actors can afford houses anywhere near as comfy as their companies’. But real estate is all anyone’s been talking about for three seasons now, and we’re bored with it.

So, new subject: content.

We’re living in a conservative age, and while theater troupes would be loath to admit it, the bricks-and-mortar stability they’re enjoying is making them awfully cautious. Seldom in recent memory have so many local stages scrambled to mount unremarkable interpretations of box-office-safe warhorses: The Diary of Anne Frank, Fences, Carousel, Blithe Spirit, The Rocky Horror Show, On Golden Pond, The Elephant Man, The Seagull, Cyrano, The Crucible, and a Tennessee waltz through the best-known works of the best-known American playwright of the ’50s.

Nor have so many troupes resorted to remounting past successes. Both of the area’s Russian companies restaged hits from last season. Arena Stage brought back Crowns after a mere four months—and The Importance of Being Earnest for the fourth or fifth time. The Washington Shakespeare Company restaged not one, but two of its past hits in a rotating rep.

Ask artistic directors why they’re playing it so safe and they cite a lack of enthusiasm for adventurous work by a New York– fixated Washington Post, which seems to send its theater critic to Manhattan more often than to D.C.’s smaller stages. Mount a new play locally, says one director who, for obvious reasons, asked not to be identified, “and buried deep inside Style, you get a second-stringer’s review with no picture, while [lead critic Peter] Marks reviews some one-weekend Broadway flop on the front page.” In that climate, doing Albee or Molière guarantees troupes with limited promotion budgets at least a starter crowd to get word-of-mouth going. Small wonder D.C.’s stages sometimes seem intent on becoming theater museums, marching boldly into the past.

Thank goodness that’s not the whole story. The Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, which can generally get Marks to come to its openings, is in the midst of what it has been energetically touting as a season of area and world premieres. Theater J is exploring similar territory a bit more quietly. Of the Signature Theatre’s four musicals this year, only one had a vaguely familiar title—Allegro—and that rang a bell only because it was that rarest of commodities—a Rodgers & Hammerstein flop. And whatever the drawbacks of Arena’s splashily scattered production of Señor Discretion Himself, credit the troupe with at least tackling an unproduced and unfinished, though unfortunately undistinguished, show by Frank Loesser.

Arena did itself a hell of a lot prouder with another musical—a quasi-musical, anyway, though nobody would argue that the songs are the point in Brecht’s bitterly funny anti-war satire A Man’s a Man, which by design or by blind luck opened just as it became staggeringly obvious that we’d marched half our army into Mesopotamia looking for germs that didn’t exist. The Post, predictably enough, didn’t find Arena’s gamble terribly exciting, but for most reasoning adults the show’s astonishing aptness only spotlighted what the rest of the season largely lacked: With the most contentious election in modern U.S. history raging, few area theaters mounted anything that might remotely be called political commentary until after voting day. (Well, remotely, maybe—if you count ’30s Shaw on government connivance and pre-9/11 Tony Kushner on Afghan bloodbaths.) We’re usually impatient with New York comparisons, but it’s got to be acknowledged that while off-Broadway stages were awash with political satires by everyone from Sam Shepard to Tim Robbins, stages in the nation’s capital basically sat the election out.

Commercial Houses

While the Kennedy Center’s summerlong foray into mostly familiar Tennessee Williams territory didn’t attract nearly as much national attention as its 2002 Sondheim Celebration, it did manage to offer a couple of surprises, most notably Sally Field’s exquisitely stifling Amanda Wingfield, a star turn that compensated nicely for Adam Rothenberg’s pole-dancing Stanley Kowalski. An evening of recently discovered one-acts offered a few unexpected insights while charting the author’s career. Then, after the Williams fest was over, James Earl Jones stopped by briefly to lend a bit of resonance to the burblings of On Golden Pond.

If the rest of Foggy Bottom’s commercial attractions inspired less excitement than the KenCen’s expanded parking garage, they still had precious little competition from the Warner Theatre, with its bus-and-truck revivals of decades-old musicals, or the National, which was tenanted for a whole four weeks, thanks to what its annual report refers to as the Shubert Organization’s “first-rate bookings and impeccable management services.”

The cavernous Lincoln Theatre rejoined the theatrical fray as the D.C. home of Kenny Leon’s new multicultural, multicity True Colors Theatre Company. The troupe’s first offering, Langston Hughes’ gospel musical Tambourines to Glory, couldn’t avoid a carrying-coals-to-Newcastle flavor, opening on the same weekend as a more accomplished homegrown evening presented by the African Continuum Theatre Company, but Leon’s Broadway credits will no doubt help establish a theatrical foothold on U Street.

The happiest news at the city’s commercial venues was heard from an unexpected spot: the long-moribund Ford’s Theatre, where newly arrived producing director Paul R. Tetreault is busy blowing the cobwebs out of a building too many serious theatergoers haven’t set foot in for years. Not a moment too soon, as it happens. The late Frankie Hewitt will always have a place in the history books for helping bring theater back to the house, but the twilight of her reign at Ford’s included two of the more mortifying attractions of her 36-year tenure—an inept butler biodrama and a simpering biblical pageant, neither of which belonged on a professional stage. Tetreault came to town vowing to bring in smarter directors and put his production dollars up on stage where an audience can see them, and his first two productions have borne out the wisdom of that strategy, especially the troupe’s freshly enchanting restaging (we can’t believe we’re saying this, either) of A Christmas Carol.

Downtown Repertory

Arena’s finest hour may have been its least popular: an Eastern European director’s dazzling take on that Brecht broadside, which felt like something from the troupe’s ’70s heyday. Alas, having weaned its audience off such challenging fare in recent seasons, the troupe naturally did better business with splashy musicals—lesser Frank Loesser and Jule Styne stylings—and that twice-produced evening devoted to the flamboyant hats worn by African-American church ladies.

Studio made something more substantial out of wild headgear in Caryl Churchill’s terrifyingly Orwellian Far Away. Headlines about the company focused mostly on its vastly expanded physical plant and the start of an ambitious season of Russian plays, but Studio scored most strongly with four imported solo shows—a South African white woman, a hiphopping black man, and a gender-bender who performed one show in his female persona and another as himself.

The Shakespeare Theatre’s luscious Cyrano was poetry itself, despite a casting glitch (Stacy Keach’s slower-than-expected recovery from knee surgery) that required Geraint Wyn Davies to step into the title role at the last moment. He told interviewers he spent a while ad-libbing in rhyme before he was entirely on book, but audiences were too enthralled to notice. The other high point at the Lansburgh was Mary Zimmerman’s gorgeous Pericles—which is still running, so grab tickets.

The long-nomadic Gala, Woolly Mammoth, and African Continuum companies finally discerned a dim glow at the end of the tunnel they’ve been homelessly traversing. All three troupes have waited years for new homes, all of which will open in the next few months. Gala marked time with a mostly revue-oriented season that allowed its staff to devote itself to fund- and wall-raising, though it did find time to Charleston its way pretty charmingly through Calderón’s La Dama Duende. And the Woollies bopped from pillar to post with a slew of premieres, one of which allowed Brigid Cleary (the Homebody in Tony Kushner’s loopily lapidary Homebody/Kabul monologue) to give Jennifer Mendenhall, who starred in virtually everything else the company produced, a run for her money as the year’s most chameleonic actress.

Theater J earned plaudits for co-producing the Kushner, but nothing else it served up measured up—not the overthought, overwrought love story from artistic director Ari Roth, and certainly not the pair of whimpering new one-acts from Wendy Wasserstein. The Folger Theatre revised and conquered with a Mafia hit of a Comedy of Errors and a Two Gentlemen of Verona that turned the focus on the “subsidiary” characters, and African Continuum did due diligence in the canon with a matched set of August Wilson dramas as the year began and ended. The Washington Stage Guild scored with On the Rocks, a pointed Shavian critique of short-sighted, small-minded electorates, but with little else, and down the block at the Source Theatre—well, sadly enough, the Source seems to have dried up.

‘Burbs and Beyond

Across the river in Arlington, the Signature Theatre staged a season that ranged from idiosyncratic elegies to undifferentiated pop-rock meditations on Vietnam, from a decidedly tepid take on the supposedly torrid Blue Room to a musically muscular but thinly plotted encounter with a crazy artist’s crazy doctor. (Unsatisfying, but damn, what voices!) The artistically sound but fiscally strapped Synetic Theater merged its operations with the Classika family-theater folks, but so far they’re still struggling to find an audience for Synetic’s singularly stylized productions. The American Century Theater, meanwhile, trusted its enviably loyal audience to stick with it through uneven reads on the rarely produced 20th-century curiosities that are the company’s mission; of them, Ben Hecht’s intensely personal politicking and William Saroyan’s open-hearted mourning were probably the most affecting.

The Washington Shakespeare Company made rough magic indeed with a Tempest centered on Jenifer Deal’s blind, imperfectly maternal Prospero, but the company unearthed something like hope, of all things, in an achingly intimate Waiting for Godot. Brian Hemmingsen, that show’s gentle giant of a Gogo, turned meanly political for the Keegan Theatre’s Crucible, which was otherwise notable mostly for the tremendous dignity of Lee Mikeska Gardner’s Goody Proctor.

Gardner, in turn, took herself to Maryland and turned harridan for the Round House Theatre’s Tabletop, a cracklingly funny excursion into TV-commercial territory—an experience every bit as electric, in its way, as the company’s blisteringly real take on the Stephen Adly Giuirgis prison drama Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train. Two invigorating shows was more than the Olney Theatre Center could manage—its Carousel seemed to be running down, and its Blithe Spirit had no sparkle—but its satisfyingly complicated Copenhagen almost made up for an otherwise iffy season.

Small Fry

It was the year Cherry Red Productions officially flipped its last bird (at least locally), the year the Actors’ Theatre of Washington began to rebuild under new leadership, and the year we pretty much wrote off the Stanislavsky Theater Studio as unwatchable. (It was also the year in which said troupe, all but thumbing its nose at D.C.’s critical corps, actually revived its excruciating solo excursion through Isaac Babel’s Russia.)

The Scena Theatre weighed in with a whimsically perceptive Polish oddity and a scary-funny Serbian look at the emigrant’s life, both intelligently done; the Rorschach Theatre brought Ami Dayan in with a Dario Fo piece about untrustworthy governments; the ensemble-oriented Longacre Lea made surprising sense out of a particularly inscrutable bit of Ionesco. And the Theater Alliance—the increasingly ambitious, increasingly impressive contender for the title of ballsiest small D.C. theater—found a surprising urgency in Mary’s Wedding, a deceptively simple story of love and duty, circa World War I.

Which, come to think of it, suggests that maybe the question isn’t whether a play’s old or new, radically structured or apparently traditional—or even whether a company can afford to be bold when it’s got a mortgage to think about. House-proud Arena and mouse-poor

Longacre Lea both proved that it’s possible for savvy directors to make vigorous, challenging theater straight outta the canon, and companies from the long-established Woolly to the new-kids-on-the-unlikely-block at Theater Alliance nailed 95 theses’ worth of newer but no less savvy works to D.C’s collective door. The question, it turns out, has less to do with bricks and mortar than with brains and moxie.CP