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Boston Spotlight: January 2005

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Pieter-Dirk Uys, writer/performer of Foreign AIDS
as Evita Bezuidenhout
Now that we've dispensed with the obligatory holiday get-togethers, it's time to see what the rest of the human family has been up to. The American Repertory Theatre kicks off a month-long South African festival -- heralding a decade of post-apartheid democracy -- December 30 with Pamela Gien's The Syringa Tree, which won a 2001 Obie. This multifaceted memoir, in which the author/actor (and former company member) channels two dozen characters of varying ages and races, runs through January 16. January 5-23, satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys inaugurates ART's new Theater at Zero Arrow (a state-of-the-art substitute for the Hasty Pudding) with Foreign AIDS, a 2004 Obie-winner addressing the health crisis facing the nation. Uys impersonates, among other figures, the benighted Evita Bezuidenhout, a sort of Afrikaner Dame Edna, and her sister, sex show star (and Nazi widow) Bambie Kellerman. Interspersed with lectures, panels, and films, the program winds up January 21-30 with Nothing But the Truth, written by and featuring John Kani, a longtime Athol Fugard colleague. Mounted previously at Lincoln Center and the Mark Taper Forum, the play examines familial friction between exiles and those who fought for freedom in situ.

Also starting previews on December 30, and running through January 29, Larry Pine's world-premiere one-man adaptation of Tolstoy's famous story The Kreutzer Sonata, at the Merrimack Repertory Theater in Lowell, promises "a masterfully bleak vision of sex as a hostile act" -- with music, yet. We're game.

January 5 through February 6, New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre reprises Craig Lucas's Singing Forest, which premiered at Seattle's Intiman Theater last summer. Shuttling between 1930 Vienna, post-WWII Paris, and New York at the turn of the millennium, the comedy/drama examines the cult of psychotherapy, celebrity worship (Sigmund humself makes an appearance, signifying both), and the enduring mysteries of family dynamics. During that same span, the New Repertory Theatre in Newton offers up the Boston premiere of Doug Wright's De Sade saga Quills, starring Austin Pendleton.

January 6-17, three of Boston's most powerful female performers collaborate on Dressed Up! Wigged Out! at the Boston Playwrights Theatre, when ART founding member -- and perennial standout -- Karen MacDonald directs Leslie Dillen and Paula Plum in a pair of solo pieces sparked by... dresses and wigs (which touch off reminiscences about their mothers). The play was workshopped last summer at the tiny, ambitious Unadilla Theatre in remote East Calais, Vermont.

The provocatively named, fringy T & A Theatre Company (the initials allude to the principals) brings The Last Little Porn Shop -- a spoof about 1998 New York under Giuliani -- to the Boston Center for the Arts January 6-17. From January 6 through February 6, the Hartford Stage in Connecticut sets Jeffery Roberson (a.k.a. Varla Jean Merman) and James Lecesne, both of whom wreaked delightful mayhem with The Mystery of Irma Vep last year, loose on Joe Orton's '60s sex farce What the Butler Saw.

On January 7-8, the Theatre Cooperative in Somerville (Cambridge's low-rent neighbor) embarks on The Ritalin Readings, a festival of 10-minute works by New England playwrights; consider it a warmup for the Boston Theatre Marathon at the Huntington Theatre Pavilion May 22. The Coop will also reward emerging writers -- including African-American playwright Frank A. Shefton and gay columnist David Valdes Greenwood -- with readings on the weekends of January 14-15, February 4-5, and February 18-19 as part of The New Play Series.

The Wellesley Summer Theatre (which operates year-round) presents the world premiere of Laura Harrington's Book of Hours -- about dedicated rare-book librarians in Belgium preparing for the German onslaught in World War I -- January 7-20. And January 7 through February 5, director Eric C. Engel reenvisions The Glass Menagerie at the Lyric Stage with a superb cast including Nancy E. Carroll as the indomitable Amanda and the outstanding African-American actor Vincent Ernest Siders as her fugitive son.

The blockbuster is bound to be the Huntington's rendition of The Rivals (January 7-February 6), starring Mary Louise Wilson as Mrs. Malaprop (it'll be interesting to compare and contrast with Dana Ivey's portrayal at Lincoln Center) and featuring local faves Will LeBow as Sir Anthony Absolute and Helen McElwain in the soubrette role of Lucy the maid.

New England gets its first glimpse of Suzan-Lori Park's Topdog/Underdog at the Trinity Repertory Theatre January 7 through February 13. This co-production with Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, where director Kent Gash is associate artistic director, will move to the New Rep February 23; it stars Kes Khemnu and Joe Wilson, Jr. -- a knockout in Trinity Rep's recent Ain't Misbehavin', also directed by Gash. Echoing the Circle in the Square's novel 2000 take on True West, the actors alternate in the roles.

January 13 through February 13, Jason Slavick of Boston Theatre Works takes on The Tempest at Boston Center for the Arts's Cyclorama Theatre, with Shakespeare & Company stalwart Jonathan Epstein as Prospero.

The fifth annual African American Theatre Festival -- spearheaded by Jacqui Parker, artistic director of Our Place Theatre Project and a Norton Award-winning actress -- runs January 18-30 at the Boston Center for the Art's Calderwood Pavilion. Highlights include Those That Came Before, featuring seminal '60s work by Ed Bullins; the world premiere of Cynthia G. Robin's slave love story Ascension (which Kenny Leon, director of A Raisin in the Sun and Gem of the Ocean, is planning to give a reading in Tribeca later this year); Spunk, three tales by Zora Neale Hurston adapted by outgoing Public Theatre director George C. Wolfe; and a night of eight short new works (including one by Frank A. Shefton).

Does the Stoneham Theatre have a thing for musicals about lurid murders? Coasting on the success of last spring's Lizzie Borden, the polished suburban-Boston venue is debuting Thrill Me, a musical retelling of the Leopold and Loeb story, by Stephen Dolginoff January 20-30.

Company One unveils 103 Within the Veil, a new play by Kirsten Greenidge about Hubert Collins, a forgotten black photographer, at the Boston Playwrights Theatre January 20 through February 5. During those same dates, Russian-born director Lilia Levitina directs the area premiere of The Promise, by Aleksei Arbuzov, at the Boston Center for the Arts. Basement on the Hill Stage presents this Soviet-era drama, which Ian McKellen brought to Broadway in 1967.

For a month beginning January 20, the feisty Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket, Rhode Island (just outside Providence), will mount Red Noses by the recently deceased British playwright Peter Barnes, a 1985 commission for the Royal Shakespeare Company which won that year's Olivier Prize. Calling for a vast, carnivalesque cast, it's described as "a black comedy about the Black Death."

To kick off its "New American Voices" series, New Haven's Long Wharf heralds 25-year-old phenom Noah Haidle, currently playwright-in-residence at Juilliard, with the world premiere of Rag and Bone, directed by Tina Landau, January 26-March 6. Fanciful doesn't begin to describe the plot, which involves an accidentally constructed "ladder to heaven" and the black-market sale of human hearts.

Finally, on January 28 (through February 19), the Speakeasy Stage continues a stellar season at the Boston Center for the Arts with Tristine Skyler's The Moonlight Room, last season's New York sensation about two teenagers enduring an emergency-room vigil.

One month; two dozen or more very promising productions. Plan to put your TiVo on overdrive.

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