PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, April 20-26: Noble Gesture

ICYMI   PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, April 20-26: Noble Gesture In a press statement issued April 24, Adrian Noble announced that he will not be renewing his contract with the Royal Shakespeare Company when it expires in March 2003. And with that, the entire British theatre community heaved a heavy sigh of relief. Noble's recent ideas for overhauling the RSC, which he has run since 1991, have put the artistic soul of the nation of the rack for the past year.

In a press statement issued April 24, Adrian Noble announced that he will not be renewing his contract with the Royal Shakespeare Company when it expires in March 2003. And with that, the entire British theatre community heaved a heavy sigh of relief. Noble's recent ideas for overhauling the RSC, which he has run since 1991, have put the artistic soul of the nation of the rack for the past year.

The announcement came just days after the opening of the big new British musical, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which Noble directed. And that coinciding was no coincidence. Many theatre insiders assumed that, given the widespread resistance to Noble's plans for the future direction of the RSC, he would wait to see whether Chitty Chitty Bang Bang would take off. If it did, the belief was, then so would he. And he has.

Noble's trouble began in 1998, when he revealed a hugely ambitious plan for RSC's future, in which the company's primary theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon would be demolished and the 1,500-seat auditorium replaced with a more intimate space surrounded by what was described as a "Shakespearean theatre village" built by Dutch architect Erick Van Egeraat. Building was supposed to have begun sometime after 2000. But some critics did not wish to say goodbye to the 1932 theatre so quickly. Others questioned whether the company could handle the costs of such a plan. Still others shuddered at the theme park connotations of a "Shakespearean theatre village."

But, as if that weren't enough, Noble had plans for London too, specifically the abandoning the RSC's longstanding home there, the Barbican, in favor of West End commercial houses. Not surprisingly, technicians and staff at the Barbicon and in Stratford, threatened with less work and job cuts, weren't crazy about the idea, and voted to strike. Soon after, Terry Hands, onetime artistic director of the RSC and an advisor to the company, resigned, saying he thought Noble's plans neither artistically nor commercially viable. This was enough to attract the concern of the RSC president, who happens to be the Prince of Wales, fierce foe of liberal architectural ideas everywhere.

Noble, for his part, fought on, attacking his critics in the pages of The Independent, arguing that his company needed to adapt and have options. "Today, the strength of theatre remains not in spectacle...but in the intimacy of the event...at the moment our theatres are too formal and restrictive." This wasn't enough to convince one of his actors, though. Samuel West, who had a hit with his Hamlet, said, in an acceptance speech at the Critics Circle Awards ceremony at the Theatre Royal, that he thought Noble's new vision for the company endangered the historical strength of its ensemble acting and comradeship. Elsewhere, there were whispers that Judi Dench was also gravely concerned, and no one ignores the worries of Dame Judi, whispered or otherwise. The debate finally went to the House of Commons, where Noble was grilled and cautioned about cost overruns. Meanwhile, West End theatre owners weren't getting very excited over the idea of renting to stuffy RSC productions with no ticket-selling star quality.

So, it came as no surprise that Noble pulled a Trevor Nunn and fashioned a commercial escape hatch to artistic and financial independence in the form of Chitty Chitty. The show won rave reviews and looks to be on its way to New York. So poor Adrian will be able to contemplate the past year's events in the highest of style.

Urinetown and Metamorphoses won the Lucille Lortel Awards for best musical and play this week. Get used to hearing those names again and again in the coming months. These two shows are perfectly poised to capture more awards than would be possible for your average show. New York theatre award organizations are particular and idiosyncratic. Some only honor Broadway (the Tonys), while others stick to Off-Broadway (the Obies and Lortels). Still others cover everything (Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle). Since both Urinetown and Metamorphoses began their lives Off-Broadway and then jumped to Broadway, they stand a chance at fetching honors from every critics' klatch in town. (Urinetown already won an Obie and a heap of Drama Desk noms last season.)

Columbia University undergrad and sometime movie star Julia Stiles has found a nifty summer job. She will play Viola in this summer's Central Park production of Twelfth Night, directed by Brian Kulick. Joining her as Maria, Olivia's crafty maid, will be the ever-busy Kristen Johnston. John Goodman is reportedly poised to sign on.

It was a good week to open on Broadway. The new Lincoln Center Theater revival of Paul Osborn's bittersweet and evergreen comedy, Morning's at Seven, took everyone by surprised and received across-the-board huzzahs. And Simon Callow's one-person show The Mystery of Charles Dickens was well received at the Belasco.

Off-Broadway saw the closing ofJason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years, and the commencement of previews for Alan Ayckbourn's House and Garden. This perhaps most gimmicky venture from a playwright known for his winning way with theatrical gimmicks has proved an attention-getter in every city it has played. Regardless of the reviews it wins in New York, the Manhattan Theatre Club mounting, too, shouldn't fail to attract the curious.

Under coming attractions, the big news was a 2003 Broadway revival of David Mamet's corrosive drama Glengarry Glen Ross. Danny DeVito will star as Shelly Levine. Dan Sullivan will direct.

Finally, the creators of Sweet Smell of Success are picking themselves up off the ground and moving on. John Guare's latest, A Few Stout Individuals, began previews April 23 at the Signature Theatre Company. Composer Craig Carnelia, who wrote the lyrics for Sweet Smell, will be the chief balladeer in Goodspeed Musicals' production of his musical (for which he wrote both lyrics and music), Actor, Lawyer, Indian Chief, May 15- June 9. And J.J. Hunsecker himself, John Lithgow, will host the Drama League Awards ceremony on May 10. It's not the best gig, but you've got to start somewhere.