Looking for presents for your favorite theatergoer? I have a few suggestions, even if you can't afford to send her or him to New York City to see the Cincinnati Playhouse's revival of Stephen Sondheim's Company, which recently opened on Broadway. How about a copy of the 86th edition of THE BEST PLAYS THEATER YEARBOOK, edited by Jeffrey Eric Jenkins? This 500-page book covers the 2004-2005 season with essays about 10 outstanding plays (only one of which has been staged in Cincinnati -- Caryl Churchill's A Number was presented by New Stage Collective early last summer) and hundreds of facts about Broadway, Off Broadway and regional productions. The volume has in-depth essays about onstage trends (Jenkins' piece on Broadway and Off Broadway is always a consummate analysis of directions in modern theater), and additional commentary about plays earning regional theater recognition from the American Theatre Critics Association and its Steinberg New Play Awards.
One of these is Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House, which only recently opened in New York City but which was staged by several theaters around the country, including the Cincinnati Playhouse. (Last January's production, in fact, won a 2006 Cincinnati Entertainment Award as the best play of last season.) For anyone who cares about theater, Best Plays is an invaluable volume ($49.95 from Limelight Editions). I also recommend a membership in the Theatre Communications Group (TCG): The principal benefit of enrolling is a subscription to AMERICAN THEATRE, TCG's monthly magazine that's full of features about professional theater across the United States and listings of productions from coast to coast -- plus occasional glimpses of theater around the world. The emphasis is decidedly non-commercial and occasionally too academic, but when I look back over past issues I realize this magazine has its finger on the pulse of what's happening onstage. The December 2006 issue has a cover story about Suzan-Lori Parks, who wrote 365 short plays over the course of one year. There's also an in-depth look (with lots of color photography) at how Cirque du Soleil is transforming Las Vegas. Many issues contain the complete script of a recent play: In September it was Rolin Jones' award-winner, The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, a script that would be an excellent choice for several Cincinnati theaters. (In the sense of Full disclosure: I should add that I am writing a feature for an upcoming issue of American Theatre about playwright Carson Kreitzer, whose new play 1:23 has its world premiere at the Cincinnati Playhouse early in 2007.) TCG membership ($39.95) can be obtained by visiting www.tcg.org. Finally, if you know someone who travels frequently to New York City and likes to see theater there, you might consider a membership in THE DRAMA LEAGUE. For as little as $50, members can attend discounted Broadway and Off Broadway performances, dine at several private theatrical clubs in New York, vote for selected theater awards, and stay up-to-date on theatrical news. More information: www.dramaleague.org
For 16 years the Cincinnati Playhouse has made itself an integral part of the holiday season with its full-fledged production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. This isn't just a staging thrown together to take financial advantage of people's desire for a retelling of Charles Dickens' classic story of Scrooge. It's a beautiful staging of a script by Howard Dallin that leans heavily on Dickens' original language. The production is also a showcase for local professional actors, include performers regularly recognized by the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards like Bruce Cromer, now in his second year as Scrooge after eight as Bob Cratchit, and Dale Hodges, who does a bit of everything, playing a ghost (Christmas Past), a dotty party guest and Mrs. Peake, Scrooge's nervous housekeeper. It's also fun to see how director Michael Evan Haney, who has staged the piece annually for 14 years (he spent the first two as Cratchit), tweaks a bit here and there. If you think you know all the tricks played on unsuspecting audiences, you'll be fooled this year. This production is an annual treasure. Grade: A-
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