Bigger Than Broadway!


    The world's a stage: The outdoor Elizabethan theater is one of three venues in Ashland, Ore.

    By the time the eco-terrorists show up — a band of tree sitters, with names like Lynx and Aquarius and Smokebomb, who drop from the skies, rappelling down the trunks of a redwood grove onstage — your head is already spinning. Daughters of the Revolution, one-half of David Edgar's two-play cycle about an American political campaign called Continental Divide, has mostly been talk up to this point. But what talk! The play has nearly 50 characters, rapid-fire dialogue and an impossibly complicated plot involving leftover '60s radicals, skeletons in the closet, the clash between ideals and pragmatism in politics, and a hot-button ballot initiative that would mandate loyalty oaths for all voters. And that's only half the story. Daughters of the Revolution centers on the Democratic side of a gubernatorial race in an unnamed Western state; its companion play, Mothers Against, focuses on the Republican side. In all, it's six hours of dense, unruly, sometimes maddening, always engrossing drama.

    And you have to go to Oregon to see it.

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    Continental Divide, currently being given its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland (in a coproduction with California's Berkeley Repertory Theater, which will mount it later this year), is just the latest sign that challenging American theater is alive and well and nowhere near Broadway.

    It's hardly news, of course, that theaters beyond the Hudson River are doing good work. Or that many of the plays that wind up on Broadway and off Broadway get their start at regional theaters. Nor should it be a surprise (though it was) that this year's Pulitzer Prize for drama went to a play most of New York City's tastemakers had never even heard of: Cuban-born playwright Nilo Cruz's Anna in the Tropics, which had been produced only at the 104-seat New Theater in Coral Gables, Fla.

    What isn't so apparent — until you spend some time, as I did over the past few months, surveying regional theaters across the country — is that these companies are pursuing whole chunks of the repertory that New York, with its commercial pressures and unforgiving critics, largely ignores. And local audiences are getting a better taste of the possibilities of theater than most New Yorkers get in an entire season. The plays that succeed on and off Broadway these days are, as a rule, small things: two-and three-character relationship dramas (those big casts cost money!); minimalist exercises in craftsmanship; tidy little plays that convert big subjects into manageable private dramas (Proof, Copenhagen, How I Learned to Drive, to name just a few recent award winners). Plays of epic size and scope, works that examine American history and the American experience, plays that attempt to engage the audience in social and political issues — for those, mostly, you've got to look in the hinterlands.

    A couple of years ago, for example, a San Francisco playwright named Joan Holden had the somewhat unpromising notion of turning Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich's best-selling book about her experiences as a minimum-wage worker, into a stage play. The result is an episodic but incisive series of vignettes about the impossibility of making ends meet while waiting tables in Florida, scrubbing toilets in Maine and stocking discount-store shelves in Minnesota. Nickel & Dimed has its deficiencies as drama, but it's a rare example of theater that tries to open people's eyes to the way life is lived in the real world — and maybe even rouse them to action. Midway through the second act, the actors step out of character, stop the play and conduct a 10-minute discussion with the audience on how much a cleaning woman deserves to be paid. Producers in New York haven't given it much attention, but Nickel & Dimed is making a successful march through the regionals, from Seattle to the Trinity Rep in Providence, R.I.

    In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater last fall presented writer-director Eric Simonson's big, imaginatively staged adaptation of Moby Dick; there was no whale, but a surprising amount of Herman Melville's imposing novel made it onstage. (Adaptations of epic novels, like John Irving's Cider House Rules, have a habit of flopping in New York.) Houston's enterprising Alley Theater last fall staged a fine production of The General from America, Richard Nelson's brooding, against-the-grain, surprisingly convincing historical drama about Benedict Arnold. (The play later opened off-Broadway, where the critics, predictably, dissed it.)

    "Our responsibility is to do big stuff — not the next one-set, three-character play," says Gregory Boyd, artistic director of the Alley, which has commissioned, among other new works, a play from Keith Reddin about the Luddite rebellion in 19th century England. Regional theaters are one place where educational is not a dirty word. Performances are often followed by discussion sessions; the programs (so pathetically inadequate in New York) are filled with background articles on the play's issues or real-life subject matter. People leave the theater with something more than stagecraft to talk about.

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