Arts & Culture

Bright, imaginative season in offing

7 min read

From Figaro to Julius Caesar to Donnie Darko, it’s showtime at A.R.T.

Here’s a party for you. Julius Caesar is sipping wine with Don Juan, Figaro, Mozart, and an art teacher from the Bronx. Two atomic bomb theorists are in deep conversation, while a troubled teenager talks with his 6-foot rabbit. A South African satirist is there in drag. A Jewish trick-rope artist brings a circus tent of odd friends. Shakespeare is there, too. He brought a lost play.

It’s a party you really don’t have to imagine, since it is already pure reality — the American Repertory Theatre’s 2007-2008 season. The troupe and its creative guests perform at the Loeb Drama Center and Zero Arrow Theatre through June 8.

“It’s a season united by its diversity and range — [all] very different theatrical experiences,” said acting A.R.T. artistic director Gideon Lester. There are new plays, classics, operas, a premiere, and a film adaptation. The season is fire and spice — a mix of the politically engaged, the classic, the experimental, and the deeply silly.

Silly starts this week, in three weekend installments. “Sxip’s Hour of Charm” is a kind of post-modern variety show, a cabaret of creative strangeness that opens Friday, Sept. 14, at Zero Arrow. Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls headlines the first weekend set, along with Sxip Shirley, the Brooklyn impresario whose toolbox of bizarre instruments includes “mutant harmonicas” and the obnoxiophone. On the second weekend, look for The Red Bastard, a comedian in a red stretch suit known for his gigantic padded bottom. On the third weekend, keep your cowboy hat on for lariat master AJ Silver, who learned to ride and rope in the Bronx.

The A.R.T. season has already opened at the Loeb with “Don Juan Giovanni” and “Figaro,” a pair of plays from Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis — veterans of the A.R.T. from years past (“Carmen,” “The Miser,” “Amerika”).

“We’re calling these opera-plays,” said Lester, “a dialog between Mozart and two great French playwrights.” Molière’s “Don Juan” is blended with Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” to make an on-stage road trip involving an old car, reckless lovers, and singing getaways. At the thought of the rakes Don Juan and Don Giovanni on the road together, one reviewer had some advice for Cambridge: “Lock up your daughters.”

The second opera-play, on stage alternately and with largely the same versatile cast, combines Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” with the classic Pierre Beaumarchais trilogy of Figaro plays, which span the turbulent years of revolutionary France. Rethinking opera like this, said Lester of both offerings, gives theatergoers something both “ancient and modern.”

At Zero Arrow in October, “The Veiled Monologues” (2003) is a soulful and poetic look at the lives and loves of Muslim women in a hidden world of sexuality and relationships. This variation on “The Vagina Monologues” is based on 70 interviews done by Dutch actress Adelheid Roosen with women from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Islamic world.

“The Veiled Monologues” is also an example of how theater at the A.R.T. can intersect with academic explorations of culture at Harvard — an approach that Lester hopes will increasingly characterize this and future theatrical seasons. “The theater can be a meeting place across disciplines,” he said, listing Harvard’s treasury of resources in music, film, art, design, literature, and education. “The resources are extraordinary. Now we need to coordinate them into a strong, fortified force.”

Actresses from “The Veiled Monologues” — themselves Muslims — will visit classrooms and in other ways interact with Harvard programs and departments, including Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, and the Islam in the West project at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

Theater can also attract new, young audiences. “The Onion Cellar” did it last year, said Lester, and “Donnie Darko” — on stage at the Loeb in October — will do it this year. It’s adapted from the 2001 cult film of the same name — a time-bending psychological thriller featuring Donnie, a troubled teenager, and Frank, a doom-predicting 6-foot rabbit. “It’s a terrific blend of science fiction and slightly campy gothic horror” — and it has youthful appeal, said Lester. “We have a serious obligation to build a new generation of theatergoers.”

“Copenhagen,” the Michael Frayn play that won a Tony in 2000, travels in time as well — back to 1941, when German physicist Werner Heisenberg met in Copenhagen with his Danish scientific counterpart Niels Bohr. The private meeting’s significance for Axis and Allied atomic bomb projects is still debated. It’s the setting for Frayn’s classic exploration of morality, friendship, and scientific intrigue at the dawn of the atomic age. “It’s a play,” said Lester, “about an idea that changed the world.”

“No Child …,” on stage at the Loeb starting Jan. 3, is a virtuoso solo play by former art teacher Nilaja Sun. She creates a kinetic portrait of public schools in the New York City, inhabited by the teenagers, teachers, security guards, and various interesting others — “a whole world, all by herself,” said Lester. “She’s a saint, who brings angry life and intensity to her work.”

Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” is this year’s classic offering, as seen through the lens of young French director Arthur Nauzyciel. “It’s a wonderful play to do at the moment,” said Lester, in a world once again in the grip of war, revolution, power, and the personalities within the turmoil.

If “Elections and Erections: A Chronicle of Fear and Fun” already reflects the modern world, it makes fun of it too. Satirist and AIDS activist Pieter-Dirk Uys comes to the Zero Arrow in April and May with this mocking send-up of contemporary South Africa, where he grew up in the apartheid era, when homophobia was also legally codified. He has said that the solo play “is named after the two things that were illegal for most of my life.”

Uys throws darts into the past, donning bits of costume to become P.W. Botha, Desmond Tutu, and Winnie Mandela. Darts hit the present too, when Uys berates his government for its denials of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. (He performed “Foreign AIDS” during the A.R.T.’s 2005 South African Festival.)

The sharpest darts of all are loosed by Uys’s alter-ego, Mrs. Evita Bezuidenhout, whose casual racism is as famous as her fluffy wig, false eyelashes, and glittery dresses. “All his characters are back in this show,” said Lester. “It’s wonderful to spend two hours in his company.”

Shakespeare wraps up the A.R.T. season, but in a way not seen before. “Cardenio” — co-produced by The Public Theatre in New York but premiering at the A.R.T. — is a reconstruction of a late play by the Bard, which was lost soon after it was performed in 1613 and survives in only a handful of fragments. “Cardenio” was rescued and rewritten by Harvard Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, Cogan University Professor of the Humanities, and playwright Charles L. Mee, whose “bobrauschenbergamerica” was performed at the A.R.T. last year. Lester called the scholar-playwright match “unprecedented cooperation.”

But the spirit of Shakespeare is still the star of the show, he added. “Cardenio” — directed by Bay Area stage veteran Les Waters and set in a contemporary villa — will be a dance of familiar touches on the comedy of love: mistaken identity, suspicious lovers, adultery, an Iago-like meddler, cross-dressing, and soliloquies (here recast as wedding toasts). Said Lester, “It’s a lovely confection.”