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Lab work

Theater Emory experiments with new plays

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Whenever Theater Emory artistic director Vinnie Murphy talks about "theater labs," I always imagine the same thing. In my mind's eye I see drama professors in white lab coats studying lines of dialogue under electron microscopes, actors in protective clothing reciting speeches in echo chambers, and flasks of acid dripping on play scripts to reveal how they can withstand caustic criticism.

The reality proves a little different, but research and development remains equally crucial to the arts as to the sciences. For 15 years, Theater Emory's Brave New Works program has developed more than 120 new plays, at least half of which went on to receive full productions in Atlanta and beyond. Theater Emory's upcoming season promises to be the most experimental in its 22-year history. The 2004-2005 season will essentially be an extended Brave New Works Festival, with staged readings and other events surrounding more than 15 new plays.

Distinct themes separate Theater Emory's scripts for the fall and spring. Most of the fall plays (Sept. 22-Oct. 24) deal with race, including Charm School (Oct. 21), a script about sensitivity training by Atlanta's comedic playwright Larry Larson; Robert O'Hara's Antebellum (Oct. 22-24), which juxtaposes the cinematic debut of Gone With the Wind in Atlanta with the political debut of Adolph Hitler in Berlin; and Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates (Oct. 17), a comic treatment of American history by Pulitzer-winner Robert Schenkkan.

Ecology unifies the spring plays (Feb. 12-March 8), which feature Janet Kenney's Globus Hystericus (Feb. 12-13), "an apocalyptic romantic comedy" in which the earth itself actually speaks; Wild/Geography (Feb. 27) by Theater Emory professor and actor Janice Akers; and shows inspired by Gertrude Stein and food writer M.F.K. Fisher.

Brave New Works aspires to bring scripts to life and send them into the world beyond the ivory tower. Theater Emory's second major initiative -- a writer's exchange program called Sister City Playwrights -- aims to assist with that. On Oct. 17, Theater Emory stages Voices Under Water, a supernatural work about the collision of the Old and New South by Abi Basch of Minneapolis.

Next summer, the Minneapolis New Play Center will reciprocate by introducing an Atlanta playwright (to be determined by Murphy) to playhouses there. Sister City Playwrights has barely left the drawing board, but such esteemed companies as New York's Lark Theatre, Boston University's Playwrights Theatre and Chicago Dramatists have expressed interest in participating. If the program thrives, it could give Atlanta's national profile a significant boost.

Concerted effort

Classic musicals like Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! exemplify one of this country's native art forms -- as uniquely American as jazz and comic books. But lavishly produced, robustly choreographed musicals frequently prove too expensive and complicated for most American playhouses to stage.

The "musical in concert" format provides an often-appealing compromise. Onstage Atlanta's Ragtime (playing through Aug. 28) offers a good example of the form. It's not exactly a theatrical spectacle, but with more than 20 swankily dressed singers sitting before the audience, as well as a five-piece orchestra, Ragtime proves a lush musical affair without being fully staged.

Onstage Atlanta remounted Ragtime from its successful run last summer, but the show doesn't always comfortably fit the "concert" format. The musical features such archetypal characters -- from struggling immigrants to white aristocrats -- that we don't necessarily need costumes or physical performance to identify them.

But Ragtime's sprawling story involves so many characters that the performers' limited movements can muddy the plot so you don't know what's going on.

As if watching a live broadcast of a radio play, the audience can imagine the episodes described in song. But the effect diminishes when you can't see a crucial prop like a proud black musician's new Ford automobile, which represents the American dream yet sets off a cycle of homegrown bigotry and violence.

Nevertheless, musicals in concert have become a refrain in Onstage Atlanta's annual programming, with stripped-down versions of Sweeney Todd and The Wiz scheduled for the upcoming season. (Aurora Theatre presents similar events once a year in Duluth.) There's no substitute for seeing a great musical, but hearing one can be the next best thing.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

Off Script is a biweekly column on the Atlanta theater scene

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