Dream Season

The shows we'd stage at a Planet playhouse

It's spring, that season when theater producers announce their lineup for the coming year (in this case, the autumn to almost-summer months of 2004-05). And this season, I've decided I'm not going to sit back unsatisfied with the offerings promised by this stage and that. No, this year, I'm going to put forward my own program, to be staged at the Weekly Planet Theater of my dreams. And what a theater it is: it's got lots of space, lots of money and a subscription audience so huge, it doesn't have to worry about attracting walk-ins with Broadway musicals.Here then is the official Weekly Planet Theater program, underwritten by a Who's Who of area millionaires and guaranteed all sorts of "Best of the Bay" awards:

Top Girls (Sept. 23-Oct. 17). Caryl Churchill is possibly England's most important playwright, a wildly original talent with a powerful intellect. So it's about time we had more exposure to her deliberately disorienting and illuminating work. Top Girls is about Marlene, a woman who's just been promoted to manager of an employment agency. In Act One she has dinner with a group of women that includes a world traveler, a Buddhist nun and former courtesan, a fictional figure from a Brueghel painting, a female pope, and a character from The Canterbury Tales. Then we get to Act Two — and the play is about Marlene's work and her troubled relations with her sister Joyce. Is Marlene a feminist hero or a selfish social climber? What was the point of that impossible dinner? And is there a price to being a Top Girl? New forms mean new contents; so a drama like Top Girls stimulates us to think in innovative ways. Next year (if I can get the rights): Churchill's latest derangement of the senses, Far Away.

Speed-the-Plow (Nov. 4-Nov. 28). David Mamet's brilliant play is about the forces that keep us from living up to our best instincts. Set in a money-mad Hollywood, it's about top film producer Bobby Gould, who's been asked to give a "courtesy" read to an unfilmable novel about radiation and salvation. Into his office steps his not-so-powerful friend, producer Charlie Fox. Charlie's just been told that a Robert Redford-like star is available to perform in a vulgar, exploitative prison movie. Gould and Fox are all behind the prison film — until Gould tries to get his temp secretary into bed. She's read the radiation text, and thinks it can help people find hope in a troubled world. Using sex as a sweetener — or is she an angel of mercy? — she convinces Gould to back the radiation film at the expense of the prison picture. But is Fox going to let a little nookie get between him and a sure million dollars? He and the temp battle for Gould's soul — and if you want to know what happens next, you'll have to see (or read) the show.

Fences (Dec. 16-Jan. 9). What's most amazing about August Wilson's plays is just how few of them we've seen over the years, several Pulitzer Prizes notwithstanding. But while the Bay area remains largely ignorant of Wilson's achievement, the author continues to dramatize a hundred years of African-American experience, utilizing a potent poetic prose, an outsized gift for characterization, and a worldview marked more by sorrow than by anger. Fences is one of his greatest achievements: a portrayal of an imperfect man who's a small hero of the Civil Rights movement and a source of trouble to his own family. There's something grand about Troy Maxson, about the dignity he brings to his job as rubbish collector, about his fight with a personified Death, about his knowledge that he could have been a great major league baseball player if white managers had been hiring black athletes when he was younger. Wilson loves this character, defects and all, and anyone who sees his story will never forget him.

Exit the King (Jan. 27-Feb. 20). No other play on the subject of our mortality has the sheer genius of this one, written by that underrated genius of the theater, Eugene Ionesco. There is a king, Berenger the First, and he's going to die. He protests, he howls, he barks out commands, he insists on existing, and all to no effect: he's still going to die. Queen Marguerite rebukes him for not being ready, Queen Marie entices him to remember her love for him, a Doctor diagnoses, a Guard spits out news updates, and the anguished King searches for anything at all that can postpone hated death. And because the King is dying, so too is his world: fields lie fallow, mountains sink, the sea floods the country and the population disappears. And the absurd remains: the King must die. Dying, he speaks for every mortal being: "Turn back, time! Turn back! Time, stop!" You want catharsis? Exit the King will cleanse you of pity and terror and make it just a little easier to breathe. For the time being.

Measure for Measure (March 10-April 3). A season without Shakespeare is no season at all. So here's the Bard's meditation on mercy and justice, adorned with his mature, magnificent poetry. The plot: A Viennese citizen is sentenced to die for fornication. His sister, about to become a nun, pleads for his life; and the judge offers it to her — at the price of her chastity. Will Isabella render up her body to lusty Angelo? Will Claudio convince his sister that, hey, a little sex won't destroy her? And is the disguised, merciful Duke of Vienna a metaphor for God, who hides His face only to see what we'll make of our freedom? Sure, I'll schedule Hamlet someday. But there are treasures in this masterpiece that just don't turn up anywhere else.

Pinter Double-Header (April 21-May 15). First A Kind of Alaska, in which a woman wakes up from a years-long coma and enters into a haunting, heart-breaking conversation with her doctor. Then The Collection, in which four partisan characters fight over the question: Did two of them commit adultery? Both plays are about the unsaid as much as the said, and both are about as deep as theater gets. As a British librarian once told me: Pinter is all about pause and effect. And these two gems contain some of his most pregnant pauses.

And that's it: my schedule of standing-room-only hits, 2004-05.

Tickets, anyone?

Contact Performance Critic Mark E. Leib at 813-248-8888, ext. 305, or [email protected].

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