Theater Review - Taking the Express

Whither Actor’s Express, our most exciting theater?

One of the most important individuals in Atlanta theater for 2003 is a player to be named later. Actor’s Express hopes that by the end of February it will be able to announce Wier Harman’s replacement as artistic director. Whoever takes the theater’s creative reins will inherit Actor’s Express’ legacy for blazing new trails.

Ever since Chris Coleman founded the playhouse in a church basement in 1988, Actor’s Express has held a unique role in Atlanta theater. It may not be the “best” of our theaters — although for some of its seasons, it unquestionably has been — but in some ways, it’s the single indispensable Atlanta playhouse. True, the Alliance Theatre has the bigger facility and more resources. 7 Stages has the more impressive avant-garde and international credentials. Horizon Theatre and Theater in the Square may be better at cultivating the upper-middle class audience of ticket buyers and giving them what they want.

But the Express has frequently been Atlanta’s most exciting theater. It’s not just a venue for challenging new works (including 11 world premieres), or bold interpretations of classics like Man and Superman, but a place for productions that are thrilling without being forbidding. I’ve always found Actor’s Express to be a place charged with the feeling of discovery, one that demonstrates that rich, innovative plays need not be intimidating.

One of first plays I ever reviewed at the Express was 1990’s Cloud 9 (a show the Express staged twice in its history). The Caryl Churchill play is dizzyingly strange, taking place half in Victorian colonial Africa, and the other half in modern London, with the same characters inexplicably changing time period, race and gender. Under Coleman’s direction, Cloud 9 was a head trip but not a headache, and we in the audience effortlessly went wherever the play chose to go.

In seeking someone to take up the Express’ banner, the theater’s search committee should be prepared for bumps in the transition. Actor’s Express will need a passionate, industrious theater artist with plenty of original ideas, someone who can take the temperature of national trends without blindly following them. And that person will need the freedom to make some wrong turns in finding a fresh path.

They should also recall that neither Coleman nor Harman had perfect runs. Coleman could be too eager a provocateur, occasionally including nudity in his shows that wasn’t justified. Harman tended to be more cerebral, with his heart seemingly in “hard” shows like the doll plays and Fefu and Her Friends.

Harman directs the world premiere of Manna by Steve Murray in March, but his last day as artistic director is Jan. 31. Under Coleman, the Express consistently explored the gay experience with great insight, and Harman deepened the theater’s inquiry of race. This month probably represents the last time for a Harman tradition: devoting January to intriguing plays about African-American identity that star Carol Mitchell-Leon. By accident or design, the practice started in 2000 with The America Play by Suzan Lori-Parks and continued last year with the repertory production of the doll plays and Bee-Luther-Hatchee.

Opening Jan. 30, Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind won’t be as edgy as the previous “January plays,” with Mitchell-Leon playing a successful African-American actress who questions her career portraying stereotypical domestics.

Helming Actor’s Express may not be a thankless job, but the departures of Coleman and Harman show the struggles that career artists have in Atlanta, which can neglect its cultural professionals. Yet the city’s theatrical life would be enormously diminished without the playhouse. In finding another artistic director, Actor’s Express needs to capture lightning in a bottle once more.

But hey, no pressure.

Coming attractions?

Reading the national or New York-based “Best Plays of 2002” stories can be like studying long-distance astronomy: It’ll be a while before the light from those stars reaches us, but they offer glimpses of what the future may hold.

Caryl Churchill’s apocalyptic fable Far Away has prompted complex responses, but mostly enthusiasm, suggesting it inspires the right kind of post-show arguments. Richard Greenberg’s well-received comedy Take Me Out, about a baseball player who reveals his homosexuality, sounds like something that would fit right in at the Express or Horizon, with sharp laughs, big American ideas and disrobing in the locker room.

It’s intriguing to see Time magazine call Richard Nelson’s Benedict Arnold drama The General from America “the overlooked play of 2002.” (Then again, Time called the Billy Joel musical Movin’ Out the best play of year, which makes you question their credibility.) And Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, about a married man who falls in love with the title animal, sounds tasteless and, frankly, insane, yet has been acclaimed by critics. How can it work? Seeing it would be the only way to find out, and any Atlanta theater willing to do it gets automatic credit for courage.

Off Script is a biweekly column on the Atlanta theater scene.??