We Couldn't Find 10

Movie stiffs handicap the Oscar races. Political types write about polls and positions. Sports writers continually reveal themselves as witless fools by always seeming to pick the Atlanta Braves, the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bulls.

But not the lowly theater scribe. The wretched flock of this fraternity never get to entertain the journalistic muse of Prediction, as in what productions will rattle the cage of existence and what shows will collapse beneath the weight of their own mediocrity.

Until now. Since most theater seasons begin in September and end in June, it's the perfect time to predict which companies are going to serve up the most intriguing seasons. Of course, there'll always be surprises, and several theaters haven't announced their schedules yet (the Grove Theater Center and California Repertory Company, to name a couple). But we won't allow that to stop the fun.

8) San Diego Stuff

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We're focusing on really local stages here, but two shows down south should be must-sees. The first is the Sledgehammer Theater's first production of a straight musical, Sweet Charity (Nov. 1-29). A fantastically talented group of people are involved: director Kristen Brandt of Demonology; choreographer Gina Angelique, who runs San Diego's most cutting-edge dance company, the Eveoke Dance Theatre; and Julie Jacobs, a wonderfully talented actress, singer and dancer.

San Diego Repertory clocks in with the West Coast premiere of Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive (Oct. 30-Nov. 29). The Pulitzer Prize-winning drama is the Great American Incest play, and it's as disturbing as it is absorbing.

Also, the Fritz Theater opens its season with La Bete (Sept. 17-Oct. 18), the San Diego premiere of a critically acclaimed comedy based on Molire that satirizes the modern stage and the state of the arts.

7) Hungry Guerrillas

This is the last time I'll mention the Hunger Artists and Rude Guerrilla in the same breath. They're completely separate companies, but they share similarities. Their theaters are located in downtown Santa Ana's Artists Village, they're staffed with enthusiastically enterprising youngish theater types, and their seasons aren't quite etched in stone. But here's what we do know: Rude Guerrilla opens its new theater with one of Samuel Beckett's most fascinating plays, Happy Days (Oct. 23-Nov. 15), and is planning on presenting Garson and Fay Kanin's Rashomon sometime in January and Marsha Norman's intense 'Night Mother in March. The Hunger Artists are planning new adaptations of Kafka short stories in March and Anton Chekhov's The Seagull in April.

6) Stages

Original material, with all the risks that entails, is Stages' buttered bread, but there's one show on tap written by a fairly well-known name: William Shakespeare. It's Titus Andronicus, not Shakespeare's best play but certainly his most violent. The imagineering crew at Stages promises a bloodbath by setting the play in 20th century Italy, where the Cosa Nostra rules. Here's one vote that the violence in this production is less Reservoir Dogs-style shock value and more like the visceral power of Peter Brook's landmark 1954 production in England, which caused scores of people to faint.

5) Vanguard Theater Ensemble

The Vanguard clocks in with a season that is, once again, among the most eclectic in the county. Its current season wraps with Molire's timeliest play, The Imaginary Invalid (Oct. 16-Nov. 14), and while the next season features [sigh] Neil Simon and Noel Coward, it also includes Craig Lucas' seldom-produced Blue Window (March 5-April 3); Anthony Clarvoe's breakthrough play Pick up Axe, about software programmers, rock & roll, and Dungeons and Dragons (April 30-May 22); and the always-engaging Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound (Oct. 22-Nov. 20).

4) The Irvine Barclay Theatre

Two words: Eric Bogosian. The provocative, literate and quite talented monologist brings his latest one-man tour de force (which is as yet untitled) to the Barclay on Feb. 26.

3) Alternative Repertory Theater

It's great just to have this troupe back after its yearlong hiatus, in which it raised money and moved into its brand-new space in downtown Santa Ana. And there are a few plays that look intriguing: a new adaptation of Everyman (Nov. 14-Dec. 19), a medieval morality play that everyone studies in school but no one produces; Donald Margulies' excellent play Sight Unseen (Jan. 30-March 6); and Steve Martin's very funny fictionalized account of the meeting of Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, Picasso at the Lapine Agile (May 22-June 26).

2) South Coast Repertory Theatre

There are some great shows on tap at Orange County's premier theater venue. Two of them are world premieres by two of America's best contemporary playwrights: Keith Reddin's But Not for Me (Nov. 3-Dec. 6), about Richard Nixon's derailing of Helen Gahagan Douglas' campaign in 1950, and Donald Margulies' Dinner With Friends (Oct. 16-Nov. 22). But we give BIG demerits to SCR for two plays it's mounting that are written by giants of American letters: Eugene O'Neill's Ah Wilderness and John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. SCR has produced only one other O'Neill play in its 35-year history, a fact that borders on embarrassing. Sure, he wrote cruddy dialogue, but the man exerted monumental influence on American theater, dragging it into the realm of literature. Clocking in with this, O'Neill's only comedy, when there are so many others that SCR could do so well (Long Day's Journey Into Night, The Iceman Cometh, Desire Under the Elms, A Touch of the Poet) is sorely disappointing.

Likewise with Of Mice and Men, the third installment in SCR's much-ballyhooed American Classics series. Instead of focusing on an American classic that sorely needs revisiting-say, anything written by Lillian Hellman, Clifford Odets, Robert Sherwood or that O'Neill guy-SCR has chosen a play produced about 150 times a year. In both cases, it looks like projected ticket sales beat out challenging material.

1) Laguna Playhouse

For the first time in our encyclopedic memory, the Laguna Playhouse has the most tempting slate of shows of any local theater. It's not as broad as SCR's (Laguna mounts six shows to SCR's 12), but each show, with one notable exception, sounds very intriguing. It begins with The Last Session (Sept. 18-Oct. 11), a critically acclaimed, small-scale musical set in a recording studio. The show, about a singer/songwriter dying of AIDS, is based on co-creator Steve Schalchlin's real-life online diary. Two other shows of great interest are Old Wicked Songs (Jan. 7-31), Jon Maran's drama about reverberations of the Jewish Holocaust in 1986 Austria, and O'Neill's bittersweet romance A Moon for the Misbegotten (Feb. 25-March 21). The playhouse is also producing Gunmetal Blues (May 27-June 20), a musical murder-mystery in the style of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, which could be wildly entertaining or intensely stupid, and A.R. Gurney's Sylvia (Nov. 5-29), a play about a man and the stray dog he adopts. That would be the notable exception. The Playhouse also has one open slot yet to be filled.

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