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Keith Parker, director of Source Theatre’s annual Washington Theatre Festival, likes to call his unruly baby “a wonderful mix of finesse and frenzy.”

It’s an apt choice of words: Since 1981, the festival, which Parker has been involved with in one way or another since practically Day 1, has hurled literally hundreds of plays—some marvelous, many messy—at a devoted following.

The idea, says Parker, has always been to create workshop opportunities for aspiring locals—”an entry point for new talent in the Washington area,” whether they’re writers, directors, or actors—and a place for experimentation by locals and notable out-of-towners alike.

D.C. theater types get the chance to stretch: Christopher Lane, an established Washington actor, switches hats to work as director on this year’s festival opener, Soft Click of a Switch, an urban-terrorism comedy by Carter W. Lewis (An Asian Jockey in Our Midst).

Emerging talents like Lewis (a Bay Area writer with a wry wit and a racetrack obsession) can use the festival to shake down works that often go on to greater glory. Soft Click, which will star Bill Delaney and Chris Stezin, is already guaranteed another staging next season in Source’s new off-hours “Aftershocks” series, and if the theater-world buzz about Lewis is any indication, it’ll go up elsewhere as well.

The early work has been known to pay off: Four festival features have gone on to win Helen Hayes Awards for Outstanding New Play. Thirteen have been nominated. Tony winners Marcia Gay Harden and Jeffrey Wright (both for Angels in America) did yeoman’s work at Source festivals gone by.

This summer’s four-week free-for-all comprises 60-plus scripts, from the wildest and woolliest of shorts in the much-loved (and often rowdy) annual 10-Minute Play Competition to the cerebral machinations of One Thousand and One, an intricate, imaginative drama about a kind of D.C. death-row Scheherazade who tries to delay his execution by spinning a captivating yarn when a TV crew comes to interview him on the eve of his death.

Parker and a clutch of literary advisers waded through better than 500 scripts, 120 of them from local writers, to find the 21 one-acts and full-length plays that will be staged in the festival’s eight major showcases. That’s not counting the stuff that’s going up at the third annual Junior Festival: a double handful of plays by talented local high-schoolers, staged July 21 and 22 in a Kennedy Center rehearsal hall.

It’s never easy to predict what’ll work and what won’t, but the closest thing to a sure bet this year is One Thousand and One, which together with Joe and Tony, a roman ” clef inspired by the death of theater giant Joseph Papp, won local playwright Robert Gulack the festival’s 1997 Literary Prize.

Gulack, a lawyer at the Securities and Exchange Commission’s enforcement division here, has a bit of theater under his belt: In 1977, when he was still working on his playwriting MFA at the Yale School of Drama (where he studied with the likes of Arthur Kopit and David Mamet), he wrote a giddy romp called The Complete Works for a friend with a gift for physical comedy. The friend, as it turns out, was Mark Linn-Baker, who went on to star in TV’s Perfect Strangers and, more recently, to co-star in the Broadway revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

After earning his drama degree, though, Gulack got sidetracked by a yen for things legal and a yearning for paid bills. He studied law at Columbia and then at Yale, worked as a prosecutor and a criminal defense attorney, and did pro bono work on death penalty cases, including the high-profile Philadelphia case of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Tom Fenton, who’s directing One Thousand and One, says there’s a striking economy to Gulack’s writing that gives the play an almost cinematic quality: “There’s very little idle exposition. Scenes are very quick to develop; the actors are very quickly into the meat of things.”

And, Fenton notes, Gulack “clearly wrote this play without worrying about how it would be produced, how a director would handle it. In some ways it would be easier to stage a film of One Thousand and One than it has been to do the play. There are some subtleties that would be easier to capture with a camera.”

Gulack, for his part, is hardly repentant: “I always find that when you give a director a challenge that looks absolutely impossible, that’s when the director finds something really creative to do.” But he’s happy with what Fenton has come up with—even in the spot where the script originally said, “Director will need some sort of magic trick here.”CP

Festival opener Soft Click of a Switch runs to July 12 at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. Shows at 8 p.m. One Thousand and One plays in Showcase No. 4, July 24-27 at Source at 8 p.m. For tickets call ProTix at (703) 218-6500; for detailed festival schedule call Source at (202) 462-1073.