Local theater companies stage newer works in lieu of the classics

Bartell Theatre companies take chances this season
Local theater companies stage newer works in lieu of the classics
"Dog Sees God" by StageQ

For the past several seasons, the five companies that perform in the Bartell Theatre (Strollers Theatre, Madison Theatre Guild, StageQ, Kathie Rasmussen Women’s Theatre and Mercury Players Theatre) have included plays on their respective theater dockets that would be familiar to the casual theatergoer. A little Shakespeare or Shaw here, a popular musical there.

Not so this season. For the most part, the companies’ play selections are the sort of fascinating picks that’ll have serious theater-lovers circling their calendars but may elicit puzzled looks from the casual crowd.

We’re talking plays like Steven Dietz’s “Bloomsday” (Strollers, Sept. 13-28), a time-traveling Irish love story that revolves around the annual celebration of the writer James Joyce. And “Dog Sees God” (StageQ, Oct. 4-19), a pitch-black take on the Peanuts comic that casts everyone’s favorite blockhead, Charlie Brown, as a high school bully questioning his sexuality.

Elsewhere, Mercury Players Theatre jumps on the Lauren Gunderson train with “The Revolutionists” (Feb. 14-29), a black comedy set during France’s Reign of Terror, while Madison Theatre Guild is staging Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities” (Nov. 8-23), a taut drama (reminiscent of “The Umbrella Academy”) about a daughter who blows up her family by threatening to write a memoir about her troubled childhood.

It’s both daring and admirable that these companies are staging intriguing contemporary works and exposing Madison audiences to less-familiar playwrights, but it’s also a move that comes with some risk. The choice all local theater companies face is whether to play it safe or take chances. Without some serious marketing, it’s possible audiences may not choose to take the artistic leap with them. Here’s hoping the trust they’ve built up over the years is enough to translate into packed houses.