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The Ninja Hamlet and the Mermaid

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Iraqi-American Heather Raffo will perform her one-woman show "9 Parts of Desire" as part of the Capital Repertory Theater's "Biggest Little International Play Festival," which opens October 16.
  • Iraqi-American Heather Raffo will perform her one-woman show "9 Parts of Desire" as part of the Capital Repertory Theater's "Biggest Little International Play Festival," which opens October 16.

At La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, where Elizabeth Doran oversaw finances before joining Capital Repertory Theater last year, the fostering of new plays such as “I Am My Own Wife” and “Jersey Boys” boosted both the company’s reputation and its funding. Producing new work helped La Jolla win a Tony Award as Best Regional Theater in 1993, and it continues to be the measure by which regional theaters are named for that honor each year.

That’s what Doran, Capital Rep’s managing director, hopes to achieve in Albany.

“The American theatrical landscape is changing,” she says. “If you want to be a high-caliber regional theater, you must do research and development of new, important work.”

So while summer-long audience-pleasers like “Menopause: The Musical” keep the professional theater’s books in the black, its upcoming lineup of new, sometimes challenging plays, The Biggest Little International Play Festival, is designed to provide some R&D excitement to the subscription season. The hope is that the festival, which runs from October 16 through November 15, will also bring the theater prestige, widespread media attention, and art foundation dollars.

“The philanthropic [picture] has changed,” Doran notes. “Donors and foundations are looking for something unique. They want to know that you’re doing interesting and creative new things with their money.”

Investing in new plays and new productions also gives the theater first dibs on shows that might otherwise end up at bigger venues. But will more serious and edgy work scare off Capital Rep’s core subscribers? That’s where the idea of a festival—a month-long showcase for readings, minimal stagings, and short runs—comes in. Smaller commitments mean less pressure to fill seats, and more opportunity to offer special pricing and other incentives to entice theatergoers to take a chance on something different.

“If we’re doing a play that’s only running two weeks, we can be more experimental,” explains Producing Artistic Director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill. “People’s expectations are, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to see, but I’m in.’ ”
The festival lineup promises to stretch every creative department at the theater, Mancinelli-Cahill says. It will take special video projection, for example, to see The Tiny Ninja Theater’s production of “Hamlet”—starring gumball-machine action figures, robots, aliens, and other dime-store miniatures—projected on a big screen. “The Little Mermaid and Other Tails: An Artist’s Guide to Unlocking the Living Universe,” a piece commissioned by Capital Rep about Albany’s own Newbery- and Caldecott-winning children’s illustrator Dorothy Lathrop, will also use projections to bring Lathrop’s drawings to the stage. “Edges: The Musical” presents a song cycle about Facebook and academic overachievers by hot young composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul—Mancinelli-Cahill calls it a sort of “Jacques Brel” for the next generation.

Giving the Festival its international flavor are two works about the effects of war on women. Iraqi-American writer Heather Raffo crafted her one-woman “9 Parts of Desire” from the stories of the people she met on a post-Gulf War visit to her father’s homeland. Meanwhile, playwright Sonja Linden drew on her experience working with African civil war refugees to pen “I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda,” about the relationship between a middle-aged British aid worker and a genocide survivor trying to convey the facts of her family’s annihilation. Such offerings “shine a light on what theater is all about,” says Mancinelli-Cahill.

The festival is a financial gamble, but Doran believes Capital Rep, with its proximity to both Broadway and the Berkshires, is perfectly situated to become the next big thing in regional theater. Could a Tony be in the company’s future? Doran is ever the optimist.

“Nobody’s ever envisioned that for us—we’re Albany,” she says. “Why not envision it?”

The Biggest Little International Play Festival will run at Capital Repertory from October 16 through November 15. (518) 445-SHOW; www.capitalrep.org.

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