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Sunday, March 19, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater

Provocative "Pillowman" heads up daring new ACT season

Seattle Times theater critic

ACT's 2006 season


Here is the lineup for ACT Theatre's mainstage season, including preview dates for each run. For subscription prices, sales and more information, call 206-292-7676 or go to: www.acttheatre.org.

"The Pillowman" by Martin McDonagh, directed by Kurt Beattie. Through April 16.

"Miss Witherspoon" by Christopher Durang, directed by M. Burke Walker. April 28-May 28.

"Wine in the Wilderness" by Alice Childress, directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton. June 9-July 9.

"Mitzi's Abortion" by Elizabeth Heffron, directed by Kurt Beattie. July 21-Aug. 20.

"A Number" by Caryl Churchill, directed by John Kazanjian. Sept. 1-Oct. 1.

"The Underpants" by Steve Martin (based on a play by Carl Sternheim), directed by Kurt Beattie. Oct. 13-Nov. 12.

Special runs of "Waiting for Godot" (by the Gate Theatre of Dublin, Ireland), Nov. 8-12; and "A Christmas Carol" (Nov. 24-Dec. 24) are also offered this season.

On the eve of ACT Theatre's 2006 season, you might say ACT artistic director Kurt Beattie is throwing caution to the winds. Acting with admirable boldness. Or playing with fire.

At a time when many regional theaters are carefully weighing and measuring the risks they take with politically and sexually charged material, in fear of offending audiences and dampening ticket sales, Beattie is opening ACT's season with one of Broadway's most graphically provocative exports in years: "The Pillowman," by Martin McDonagh.

McDonagh's award-winning, futuristic and insistently lurid thriller concerns a writer subjected to police interrogation, because material in his macabre stories echoes aspects of a recent child abduction. As he is questioned, scenes from the man's own writings, and from his violent childhood, appear before us as clues — images of a live burial, a crucifixion and other forms of savage physical (and psychological) torture.

As if "The Pillowman" weren't enough of a hot potato, ACT is also tackling plays this year about: (1) late-term abortion ("Mitzi's Abortion" by local author Elizabeth Heffron); (2) cloning (Caryl Churchill's "A Number"); and (3) African-American feminism ("Wine in the Wilderness" by Alice Childress).

And for comic relief? "The Underpants," Steve Martin's adaptation of a bawdy 1910 farce, by German writer Carl Sternheim, dubbed "deliciously politically incorrect."

And for religious irreverence, there's also a madcap Off-Broadway show about reincarnation: "Miss Witherspoon," by veteran taboo-smasher Christopher Durang (who earlier riled true believers with his "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You.")

You may recall ACT Theatre nearly went bankrupt in 2003. And that its recovery has been achieved, in part, with strong stagings of such familiar, readily accepted American classics as Eugene O'Neill's "Moon for the Misbegotten" and Tennessee Williams' "Night of the Iguana."

But the company is steadier on its feet now, after a 2005 season that saw ticket sales rise 15 percent, and contributed income shoot up 24 percent (over 2004). So it's time to spend some artistic capital, asserts Beattie.

"I think there's a hunger out there to encounter challenging material," he suggests, then adds with a laugh, "Of course, I may be terribly wrong, and wind up working as a barista next year. But I think theaters need to step out from this veil of fear, and assume that our public wants a courageous encounter with the stories and issues of our time."

Leading off with "Pillowman" seems an adventurous move, given its loaded themes (government censorship, artistic freedom, the lethal legacy of child abuse), and queasy co-mingling of grotesque comedy, vivid violence and philosophical debate.

Honored with England's 2004 Olivier Award and a 2005 Tony nomination for best play, "Pillowman" pushes aggressively at the boundaries between art and sensationalism. And many critics have lauded it for bravery and brilliance, as an imaginative treatise on the art of storytelling itself.

McDonagh is indeed a major talent, and on a roll. His gore-drenched comedy about terrorism, "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," just opened successfully in New York. And he took home a 2006 Oscar for his short film feature, "Six Shooter."

I've admired much of this author's scary, funny, startling work, including "A Skull In Connemara," (which had its U.S. debut at ACT). But after seeing "Pillowman" on Broadway last year, I found myself agreeing with critics who questioned whether the play had something of value to impart, or if its violence was mainly a ploy to ratchet up the titillation factor.

It is a question I have yet to answer. And for that reason I'm very curious to catch Beattie's different in-the-round staging of the script for ACT. "I see this as play in relation to the Grimm fairy tales, to Shakespeare's 'Titus Andronicus' and other Elizabethan plays. And I actually think it is a profoundly positive work, in terms of human values," he insists," and a profoundly entertaining one too."

Tackling such works this season isn't entirely a leap in the dark for ACT. Instead of using both of its two mainstages (the in-the-round Allen Theatre and the thrust-stage Falls Theatre), the company is confining its subscription series entirely to the Allen this year.

That may help keep down costs in ACT's $5.5 million budget, and it lets the theater continue to draw substantial income from three popular shows well-ensconced in its three other venues: "Menopause the Musical" in the Falls, and "Late Nite Catechism" and "Defending the Caveman" (playing in ACT's two cabaret venues), are all selling well and should last through the year, said an ACT spokesman.

So ACT is operating rather like some major Hollywood film studios are these days. One division churns out commercially appealing entertainment; another handles more serious "niche" material.

But Beattie contends this isn't a cynical move, and swears he's counting on "Pillowman" and his other picks to also strike chords with the public, and to fill seats.

"We've had a lot of very exciting responses from people who like the edginess of our choices this year," he reports. "And personally, I am really proud of this lineup. I just feel we have to put work out there once in a while that takes no prisoners.

"The stakes are so high in our culture right now, on so many issues of major concern. We need more public conversation. And I hope these shows will lead to that."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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