Theatre in Charleston 

Downtown's theatre companies get edgy

With a brand-new season comes the opportunity for theatre companies to wipe away the memories of any previous disasters and dazzle their subscribers anew.

Last year's season was full of delights and disappointments. There were breathtaking shows like the Charleston Stage Company's one woman The Syringa Tree and PURE's Grace. There were pleasant surprises like the Flowertown Players' tackling of Proof, a bittersweet contemporary drama with multimedia elements slap bang in the middle of their "season of love." And there were some chestnuts so hoary you could smell the mold (yes, we mean you, Footlight Players).

This year, Footlight is making a noticeable effort to attract new members with shows that are, in the words of Executive Director Jocelyn Edwards, "daring for us and our audience base." Accomplice does for mystery plays what Scream did for slasher flicks, twisting the genre inside out. The Full Monty is a comedy-drama about working men turned male strippers that will either perk up the company's core of older members or scare them away in droves.

Last season was filled with a retrospective run of plays that had been presented by Footlight in past years — a bad idea, as it turned out. "We realized that it was a mistake," says Edwards. "A lot of people had already seen the shows. With hindsight we would have done something different."

In the regular season, only the ever-reliable Neil Simon sold "exceedingly well" with his comedy, London Suite. The Players' late-night experiment, Salt and Battery, also made money despite its 10 p.m. start time. It will return at an earlier time this year (9 p.m.) for a brief season with a daring finale, the politicized Iraq-set drama, This War is Live.

"We include pop culture references that are important to try and draw in 20- to 40-year-olds," says late night director J.C. Conway. "We're just bringing stuff to people that they might see in a Ben Stiller comedy or one of those kinds of films." A different Hollywood Ben appears in Salt and Battery's second show, Matt and Ben, the fictional story of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's adventures pre-Good Will Hunting.

Charleston Stage is also playing it less safe than usual, energized perhaps by its move to two different venues while the Dock Street Theatre's being renovated. The Sottile hosts fancy, family-friendly fare like Fiddler on the Roof and James and the Giant Peach. Over at the American Theater on King Street, twentysomethings are being lured with Bad Dates (tagline: "Sex and the City Meets the Sopranos!").

All this wanton wooing of younger potential members is a necessity. The theatres have loyal members now — for the Footlight Players' main stage productions, 40-50 is considered young — but if they want to survive another 75 years (or Charleston Stage another 30), fresh blood is required. The danger, of course, is that the die-hards might be put off by edgier stuff. That hasn't happened yet, though.

Summerville's Flowertown Players take a more personal approach to their marketing. If they think there's something in one of their shows that might offend or otherwise upset an audience member, they call them up.

"This is a very conservative community," says Executive Director Naomi Chaitkin Nimmo. "We have to keep that in mind. We let people know if we put something on that they wouldn't want to see." Flowertown has a loyal subscriber base. "Those who don't renew either die or move away," says Nimmo, who's excited by the arrival of Sean Lakey. He joined the theatre last year and has just been made artistic director.

Previous plans to produce Noises Off had always been scuppered when technical directors said it couldn't be done on the Flowertown's small stage. "Sean said he'd done it before a few times on smaller stages," says Nimmo, "so we're doing it this year."

Lakey's can-do attitude echoes that of the Village Playhouse, where a confined performance space is no match for the ingenuity of Technical Director Dave Reinwald. "We're making Gypsy over in a deconstructed way," says Producing Director Keely Enright, "figuring out how to make it work in this space in an exciting, fun way."

John Patrick Shanley's Defiance is more challenging in its subject matter, if not its technical requirements. It's a powerful examination of the moral ambiguities of leaders in our society and culture, with characters that are hard to like but say reasonable things. As a talking point alone it should be a highlight of Village Playhouse's season.

The highest output of original material comes from the Have Nots! and their 35-strong ensemble of comedians at Theatre 99 on Meeting Street. "We have five regular, rotating shows and nine others developing," says Have Not! Brandy Sullivan. John Brennan's solo show The Banana Monologues runs this month, an annual all-night Improvathon is scheduled for November, and the theatre is hoping to host Cabaret Kiki again soon. But the brand new hook for the season is Cage Match!, wherein improv teams compete with each other and the audience chooses the winner. It's a new, team-led twist on improv challenge format that keeps the evening fresh for theatregoers and hones the skills of the ensemble.

PURE's unstintingly mature, intense style has gained a following without the actors ever feeling like they have to play a hit. "That's one of our strengths," says co-founder and Artistic Director Sharon Graci. "We program shows that fit the model that suits us as artists. Our patrons are used to that."

But the company's careful not to overload the audience all the time. This year, the dark themes of Shining City and Rabbit Hole are leavened by Sarah Ruhl's quirky contemporary version of Eurydice, which lends itself to a non-traditional venue. A good job too, because PURE's run will be disrupted by a move from the Cigar Factory partway through the season. "We'll be there until December," says Graci, "then we don't know where we're gonna be."

The state of flux and market testing may be hard on Charleston's theatre companies but it's great for audiences, who are in for a varied mix of familiar and extraordinary shows this year. — Nick Smith

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