By Michael Lasser
Anybody who can't find something to see in the five pages of single-spaced listings I perused for the 2011-2012 theater season must be bloody hard to please. They include performances by some 30-odd companies from GevaTheatreCenter and the Rochester Broadway Theater League to Black Sheep Theatre Coalition and Method Machine. You'll find plays being performed everywhere from a theater with good sightlines and comfortable seats to a church basement with folding chairs that require the audience to suffer for the actors' art. You'll find something as familiar as Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" and as obscure as Bulgarian playwright HristoBoychev's "The Colonel Bird." There are also titles like "The White Whore and the Bit Player," "Dark Play, or Stories for Boys," and "An Absolute Turkey" that make you wonder what in God's name they're about. The plays I'm looking forward to seeing are in bold face -- because I've never seen them or because I want to see them again.
This season's musicals range stylistically from Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Mikado" (Off-Monroe Players, November 4-13, off-monroeplayers.org) to Stephen Sondheim's "Company" (Geva, May 9-June 10, gevatheatre.org) to Elton John and Lee Hall's "Billy Elliot" (Rochester Broadway Theatre League, December 1-11, rbtl.org), the latter of which is still playing on Broadway. For the theatrical nostalgiacs among us, "South Pacific," (Rochester Broadway Theatre League, May 15-20, rbtl.org) comes blessed with one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's greatest scores (and one of Hammerstein's clunkier books), plus -- not at that high level -- "Oliver" (Pittsford Musicals, November 12-19, pittsfordmusicals.org) and "Annie" (Rochester Children's Theatre, December 10-17, rochesterchildrenstheatre.org). I may not be able to resist the one-night stand of "Thanks for the Memories: A Tribute to Bing Crosby and Bob Hope" (Rochester Broadway Theatre League, November 20, rbtl.org). This kind of show sets out to conjure up Bing and Bob's "Road to..." movies mainly from the 1940's, as well as their travels to entertain the troops during World War II. It trades in memory, but this kind of show succeeds only if the performers get it perfect; "almost" and "nearly" won't do because memories of Crosby and Hope are already perfect. We'll spot every flaw.
A couple of edgier musicals balance the more sentimental fare: "Urinetown" (Webster Theater Guild, January 21-28, webstertheatreguild.org) and "Chicago" (Pittsford Musicals, June 15-23, pittsfordmusicals.org), along with the less familiar "Grey Gardens" (Blackfriars, April 28-May 12, bftix.com) about two of Jackie Kennedy's eccentric relatives who lived in East Hampton surrounded by what children's author Wanda Gag hyperbolically called "hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats."
JCC CenterStage is doing its own balancing act with two musicals, the conventional but appealing story of a marriage, "I Do, I Do" (December 3-31, jccrochester.org) by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, best known for "The Fantasticks," and then the 1998 "Parade" (May 5-20, jccrochester.org) by Albert Uhry and Jason Robert Brown. "Parade" dramatizes in musical terms the true story of the trial of Jewish factory manager Leo Frank for allegedly raping and murdering a 13-year-old employee at the start of the Civil War. The trial revealed deep strains of anti-Semitism in Georgia and led eventually to Frank's lynching.
It's easy to justify reviving a well-known play: there are always people who have never seen it before and it often makes money. But for each classic revived, another play doesn't get a chance to find an audience. Geva is reviving "Raisin in the Sun" (February 21-March 25, gevatheatre.org) for the third time in its history. Lorraine Hansberry's play is a moving exploration of African-American life in Chicago sometime between the end of the World War II and the late 1950's. MuCCC (Multi-UseCommunityCulturalCenter), best known for unfamiliar and unconventional plays, is also planning productions of such well-known works as Arthur Miller's "Incident at Vichy" (January 5-8, muccc.org) and John Pielmeier's "Agnes of God" (February 3-12, muccc.org).
For those whose tastes tend to the dark or innovative or both, Geva is tackling Steven Dietz's dramatization of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" (October 11-November 13, gevatheatre.org) while Method Machine takes on the first part of Tony Kushner's epical "Angels in America" (March 16-24, methodmachine.org), winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for drama. The company has scheduled part two of the seven-hour work for early in 2012-2013. Kushner subtitled his work, "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes." Among the play's "national themes" are AIDS, the relationship between religion and homosexuality, and McCarthyism and the notorious Soviet spies, the Rosenbergs. Senator Joseph McCarthy's associate, Roy Cohn, is a major character.
Early in the season, MuCCC hosts a short run of Luigi Pirandello's major 1921 avant-garde "Six Characters in Search of an Author" (October 6-9, muccc.org), an elusive tragicomedy that plays with the idea of theater itself. Near the season's end, UR International Theatre Program presents Elmer Rice's 1923 classic of Expressionistic theater, "The Adding Machine" (April 12-28, rochester.edu/theatre), in which Mr. Zero, a faceless accountant in a large firm, learns that he'll be replaced by an adding machine. Enraged, he murders his boss.
There are also plays I don't know but find tantalizing, as well as a batch that don't fit easily into categories but possess their own appeal. They range from the 18th century to the present, from the wacky to the intensely personal to the historical. Among those I've seen before, I'm eager to revisit the hilariously funny "The Mystery of Irma Vep" (Blackfriars, October 22-November 5, bftix.com), assuming the cast's two actors are equally good at quick costume changes and portraying eight distinctively different characters in this penny dreadful satire of Victorian melodrama, farce, and -- with delicious incongruity -- the Alfred Hitchcock movie "Rebecca."
There are also plays I haven't seen but want to: Polly Teale's"Bronte" (MuCCC, September 15-17, muccc.org), a one-woman show about Charlotte, author of "Jane Eyre." Charlotte was the oldest of the three literary sisters who, Teale says, "broke the mould" at a time when "women had no part in public life," and "The Year of Magical Thinking" (Blackfriars, January 20-29, bftix.com), Joan Didion's play about the year she lived through after the death of her husband. I'm also very interested in Deb Margolin's 2010 play, "Imagining Madoff" (JCC CenterStage, March 10-25, jccrochester.org) about a fictional encounter between the notorious Ponzi schemer and his victims.
For the full listings of the 2011-2012 Rochester area theater season visit the 2011 Fall Guide at rochestercitynewspaper.com.