Seasonal Sexism 

Local theater in 2009 has been about the boys. That's about to change.

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From the institutional patients of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,” playing at Henley Street, to the ranch hands of “Of Mice and Men,” which just opened at Swift Creek Mill, there's been a certain male-centricity evident in Richmond theater this year. The gender bias will continue in the coming months with dueling productions of “Altar Boyz” at the Richmond Triangle Players and then Swift Creek Mill and the ego-fueled battle between Mozart and Salieri in Richmond Shakespeare's “Amadeus.”

But as winter warms into spring, a wave of female-oriented shows will hit the boards. The flood starts with “Mona's Arrangements,” a world-premiere musical that Barksdale will open at Hanover Tavern on Feb. 27, and peaks with Henley Street's all-woman cast of the existential trip, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” opening March 12.

Also on tap will be the celebrated exploration of a mother's bereavement in Firehouse's “Rabbit Hole,” opening Feb. 26. It stars local favorite Jennifer Massey in a role originated on Broadway by Cynthia Nixon of “Sex and the City.” This flurry of femininity will wrap up with a slew of shows in April, including “nor•mal,” Stage 1's new musical about characters struggling with eating disorders; an epic mother-daughter battle in Barksdale's “Well”; and the infamous lineup of homicidal ladies featured in Theatre VCU's “Chicago.”

Though women are persistently underrepresented on stage, the producers behind these shows profess no compensatory motivation to their scheduled choices. Even the nontraditional casting of “Rosencrantz” arose from other artistic considerations. Tom Stoppard's famous absurdist play retells “Hamlet” from the point of view of two minor characters who appear briefly in the Shakespearean classic before they're killed off. In only casting women, the production's director, Michael Sater, hoped to generate interesting acting and dramaturgical dynamics. “This show is already about turning Shakespeare upside down,” Sater says. “We wanted to turn the gender issue upside down as well.”

If Henley Street seems focused on blazing experimental trails, the Barksdale harkens back to the golden age of musicals with “Mona's Arrangements.” Local playwright Bo Wilson developed the show with the specific goal of complementing the unique talents of his wife, actress Jan Guarino. “Jan is kind of a genius at musical theater,” Wilson says. “She has that quality, like a Carol Burnette or a Lucille Ball, to do the big emotions of musical comedy without seeming over-the-top.”

In the show, Guarino plays the titular “Mona,” a middle-aged businesswoman who finds herself attracted to a man 20 years her junior, played by Scott Wichmann. If that's not complicated enough, Mona's niece, played by Audra Honaker, gets involved in ways that Wilson describes as “very funny, but also charming and romantic.”

You might assume that Wilson hopes to capitalize on the fascination with so-called cougars — older women who seek out younger mates Aÿ la Demi Moore — with the play. To the contrary, he first started work on the show more than seven years ago, before the term was even popularized. “There's something really predatory and oversexed about this ‘cougar’ thing,” Wilson says. “That's not really what Mona is about. Finding a new play about two people falling in love was surprisingly rare, so I decided I needed to write one.”

While these shows seem to focus on women, the themes addressed transcend gender. In reference to his spring production, Stage 1's artistic director, Chase Kniffen, says “ƒ?~nor•mal' deals with an issue that is typically considered a female issue: anorexia. However, the story reveals a family facing enormous challenges and coming together to make it through. Everyone I know can relate to that.” S

To Go

Barksdale Theatre, 1601 Willow Lawn Drive; Hanover venue, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, 282-2620.

Firehouse Theatre Project, 1609 W. Broad St. 355-2001.

The Henley Street Theatre Co., 4901 Old Brook Road, 340-0115.

Richmond Triangle Players, locations vary, 346-8113.

Stage 1 Theatre Co., 9130 Dickey Drive, Mechanicsville, 427-7548 

Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 Jefferson Davis Highway, 748-5203.

Theatre VCU, W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts, 922 Park Ave., 828-6026.



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