The new Lexington arts season kicks off this weekend with two very different theaters that are on a roll.
Studio Players has essentially been sold out all year, including this summer's blockbuster, Always ... Patsy Cline. Balagula Theatre at Natasha's Bistro and Bar also has lined up some recent hits, was featured on National Public Radio last month and announced its first bona fide season.
But the theaters' season openers this weekend show how different these similarly successful playhouses can be: Studio presents the community theater staple The Unexpected Guest by Agatha Christie, which was to open Thursday night, and Balagula Theatre presents, starting Sunday, a trio of works by absurdist, existentialist master Samuel Beckett.
Balagula Theatre: '"B" for Beckett'
Director Adam Luckey thinks it's entirely appropriate that Balagula's first announced season is a lineup of absurdist fare.
"The idea of having a viable theater that does great work in a restaurant, and then making that happen sounds a bit absurd itself. But that's what they've done," Luckey said, shortly after a rehearsal of Endgame, his contribution to the trio of plays in "B" for Beckett.
Theater co-director Ryan Case doesn't think it's absurd so much as "I think it's wonderful," he says.
"It's all about the work," Case adds, "That's why we're here in the first place, to explore and examine and develop ourselves."
Co-director Natasha Williams says that in a societal sense, it's the right time for absurdist fare that gets to the core of meaning-of-life questions. She points out that these shows started rolling out of Europe after the continent witnessed the devastation of World War II.
"It's indicative of the time," Williams says, "not just us being cute and deciding to do this stuff. Some people believe art is truth and art is life that reflects the truth."
A representation of that is Endgame, a four-person play in which a man in a wheelchair lives in an isolated, desolate world with a reluctant, volunteer servant and his parents, who live in trash cans. The man, Hamm, alternates between wishing for death and desiring small comforts such as a stuffed dog.
"Beckett says, you're born, you live through some crap, you die," Luckey says. "How do you win for yourself, even if you have nothing?"
The other two plays are short, rapid-fire works in which the speaking voice takes on a musical quality, Case says.
After announcing Balagula's season, Case was surprised people started asking whether there was an audience for the lineup, which includes works by Eugene Ionesco and Jean-Paul Sartre.
"It's what Natasha and I were reading," Case says. "We wanted to do strong material for actors and interesting material for the audience."
Announcing a season is a natural progression for the theater, which had planned play-to-play for five years. Case thinks the audience is here for the lineup.
"Lexington is incredibly smart," Case says. "I wouldn't second-guess this community, because it deserves to see a full range of theater."
Studio Players: 'The Unexpected Guest'
Gary McCormick was directing Studio Players' season-opener last year, the comedy Don't Dress for Dinner, when several theater regulars mentioned they'd like to see another good ol' Agatha Christie mystery.
McCormick went looking for a Christie work the theater, established in 1953, hadn't done and came up with The Unexpected Guest, a mystery about a man who stumbles in on what appears to be a woman who just shot her no-good husband.
But things are never what they appear to be in Christie, which is part of the appeal, McCormick says. "The finger points to everyone at some point," McCormick says of the show.
The director says that Christie's work is more challenging than it seems.
"There's a lot of dialogue and larger speeches that give background and information," he says. "I try to find actors that can make that interesting, so you need a more experienced cast."
McCormick acknowledges it's been a very good year for Studio, and he hopes his show continues the winning streak.
But both he and Case say they have to focus on the show at hand.
"I'm confident in our choices and confident in our work," Case says. "But we have to keep working and keep improving."