Resonating With "The Mad Temper of the Times

Resonating With "The Mad Temper of the Times SPOTLIGHT: WOOLLY MAMMOTH THEATRE

SPOTLIGHT: WOOLLY MAMMOTH THEATRE

"I think of a lot of our plays are suicide missions that we somehow survive," said Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of Washington, D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth Theatre. "We take high-risk approaches to high-risk plays."

For a theatre with only 132 seats, the Woolly--founded in 1980--probably enjoys the highest public profile of any small theatre outside of New York City. This is in large part due to Woolly's programming of brash new plays by young writers, which has attracted the media and a devoted, transgenerational audience.

Playwright Nicky Silver, who is enjoying his first commercial success with "The Food Chain," scored his first big hits at the Woolly, bringing him to the attention of critic David Richards, first in the Washington Post and then in The New York Times. The theatre is about to do the same thing for 25-year-old David Bucci whose black comedy, "Lynwood Pharmacy," is on through February 11.

"It's a sitcom gone bad," says Shalwitz of "Lynwood," which came to him through the tiny Salvage Vanguard Theatre in Austin, TX, one of the many small theatres with which the Woolly "networks" on a continual basis. "The play takes all the features of the typical American family and shows them in their seediest and sourest light but with a bravura language and energy and incredible humor."Having developed an audience that goes specifically to be challenged, the Woolly is in the enviable position of being able to approach new plays with what has become known as the "Woolly style": non-naturalistic, offbeat, on the edge, over the top. That style not only serves the needs of new plays but also tends to reinvent old ones that have been done elsewhere.

"While I look for works that are stylistically challenging and have something worthwhile to say, ultimately I'm only interested in plays that have the ability to grab an audience by its lapels," says Shalwitz.

  Among the four plays which will be presented this season is Tina Howe's absurdist comedy, "Birth and After Birth," about the timeless struggle of women balancing career and family. The production will be directed by Shalwitz who notes that it is "extremely rare" for Woolly to produce a playwright as well known as the author of "Coastal Disturbances."

"Usually, a playwright as well established as Tina doesn't need us," says Shalwitz. "This particular play . . . has a sense of style that relates to our theatre, that we understand and hopefully will produce successfully. And it will be done away from the spotlight of New York--yet not in total obscurity. It will draw major critics and sophisticated audiences."

After 15 years Shalwitz would like to see the theatre expand, but only slightly, to maybe 175 seats to accommodate the demand. "We certainly don't want to be pressured to do more mainstream work to fill theatre seats," he says. "The big question for all regional theatres is how to attract young audiences as the older traditional theatre-going generations die off. That's not an easy one to resolve. Yet I do think we do a good job in attracting a wide range of ages because, as David Richards once said, we tend to resonate with the mad temper of the times. Our plays are neurotically driven and offbeat, but there are real passions underneath. I wouldn't want anything to ever compromise our specific niche to nurture

and develop young and exciting playwrights."

-- By Patrick Pacheco