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Autumn Stages: Style's Theater Critics Discuss Their Picks For Richmond's Fall Season 

While political discussions parse the lesser of two evils this fall, local stages offer an embarrassment of riches. Richmond theater continues to grow in variety and quality, which makes the selection process increasingly difficult. We asked our theater critics to offer some guidance:

What They’re Looking Forward to Most

Timberline: This fall, it’s Quill Theatre’s first-ever musical, “Assassins” (Nov. 3-26). It’s a not-often-produced and problematic Stephen Sondheim about the many troubled people who have tried to kill an American president. I’ve only seen this show once before and I’m curious to see what director Andrew Hamm will make of it.

Griset: I’m curious about “Ubu 84” (Sept. 24-Oct. 22), a blending of the satiric French play “Ubu Roi” and George Orwell’s “1984.” It’s being adapted and directed by former Henley Street Theatre artistic director James Ricks in a world-premiere production at the Firehouse Theatre. It’s advertised as a mash-up about “power, corruption … and obscenity” that’s arriving “just in time for the final sprint to the finish line in the presidential election race.” Ricks has pulled off some incredible theater in the past, and hopefully this will be another.

click to enlarge "1776" at Virginia Repertory Theatre - JAY PAUL
  • Jay Paul
  • "1776" at Virginia Repertory Theatre

Politics and Unexpected Hits

Timberline: Virginia Repertory Theatre seems to be employing every big-name actor in town for the musical “1776” (Sept. 30-Oct. 23), chief among them Scott Wichmann as John Adams. This show made the Founding Fathers cool in the 1970s before they got a modern, multiethnic spin in Broadway’s current phenomenon, “Hamilton.” I expect it will be refreshing to see that politicians were once capable of honor and foresight.

A distinctly darker political tale will be told in TheatreLab’s “Mother Courage and her Children” (Oct. 28-Nov. 12), which some have asserted is the greatest anti-war play of all time. This sprawling historical epic by Bertolt Brecht may be the still-young company’s greatest challenge yet. In addition to “Ubu 84,” there are several other shows with unfamiliar titles being produced this fall.

Griset: I’m really excited about 5th Wall Theatre’s “Rapture, Blister, Burn” (Sept. 15-Oct. 8). Written by Gina Gionfriddo, this comedy is marketed as “a witty, unflinching look at gender politics” in the wake of 20th-century feminist ideals. Cadence Theatre Company’s “John” (Oct. 22-Nov. 12) by Pulitzer-winner Annie Baker looks intriguing too. The play centers on a married couple staying at a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I haven’t seen it, but it seems like a spooky reflection on the loneliness of the universe.

click to enlarge Aiden Orr plays Avery, and Sara Heifetz as Gwen, and Linda Beringer as Alice in the rehearsals for 5th Wall Theatre’s “Rapture, Blister, Burn.” - DANNY HOLCOMB
  • Danny Holcomb
  • Aiden Orr plays Avery, and Sara Heifetz as Gwen, and Linda Beringer as Alice in the rehearsals for 5th Wall Theatre’s “Rapture, Blister, Burn.”

Timberline: I’m delighted about Swift Creek Mill’s choice of “Almost, Maine” (Sept. 15-Oct. 22), a series of nine short vignettes that explore love and loss in a remote town in Maine. I think director Tom Width is just the guy to fully expose the bittersweet quirkiness at the heart of this odd little show.

Is Administrative Streamlining Having An Effect?

Timberline: Not only does Virginia Rep have a new artistic director in Nathaniel Shaw, but Quill recently changed its leadership structure and the Richmond Triangle Players continue to work without an artistic director.

Griset: From the outside, it always seems that theaters have to balance what will sell tickets and what will be artistically gratifying. When people wear more than one hat — Joel Bassin at Firehouse and now Jan Powell at Quill carry the title producing artistic director — you wonder if something may suffer along the way. So far, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Regarding Richmond Triangle, it seems to be following the same winning formula of camp, musicals and probing drama that former longtime artistic director John Knapp used before leaving for Baltimore.

In the meantime, the city’s theatrical muscles seem to grow stronger each season. I’m excited to see if our expectations are met by what ends up on stage.

What’s Next

Griset: Looking ahead, Quill’s “The Top of Bravery” opens in January. It’s an original work about the life of Bert Williams, a beloved African-American vaudeville star. Jeremy Morris, who co-wrote the show with director Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, stars.

Timberline: I was overjoyed when Cadence Theatre announced plans to stage “Violet” (Feb. 16-March 11), an unlikely musical about a woman dealing with a disfiguring facial scar. After seeing the production the Barksdale Theatre staged way back in 1999, I wrote: “‘Violet’ is everything a musical can be and more: charming but challenging, unsettling but uplifting. If this show doesn’t take root in your heart, you’re using the wrong fertilizer.”

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