Dorset Theatre Festival may well be the state’s most innovative professional theater company and — the COVID-19 crisis willing — it will only enlarge upon its reputation this coming summer.
“We’re building on our history of premieres,” explains Dina Janis, Dorset’s artistic director. “We’ve been able to get funding to start our own commissioning program. Our writers program is up and at it with a lot of programming in New York. We’re kind of deepening what we’ve been doing.”
“The 39 Steps,” Patrick Barlow’s outrageous 2005 parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous 1935 film, opens the four-play main stage season June 25-July 11 at the Dorset Playhouse. This juicy spy novel of a play, with a dash of Monty Python, hurtles a notorious fugitive and a spellbound blonde from a London music hall north by northwest to Scotland’s most remote highlands. A cast of four actors plays over 150 characters in this fast-paced comedy.
“This is going to be entertaining for our audiences,” Janis said recently by phone. “A large part of our base loves that kind of stuff. We’re excited about the ideas the director has, diversifying the cast, creating a very fun and hilarious show to start the season off with.”
Dorset will present the world premiere of “Thirst” July 16-Aug. 1. The comedy by Irish playwright Ronán Noone is based on Eugene O’Neill’s classic drama of family dysfunction, “A Long Day’s Journey into Night.” Failure, denial and passion bubble as two Irish servants and an American chauffeur pass the day in the kitchen of the Tyrone family’s residence in 1912.
“It’s really an interesting premise,” Janis said. “It’s quite lyrical and quite beautiful, very passionate — and very Irish. It’s both funny and very romantic — and poignant.”
Resident playwright Theresa Rebeck, both author and director of last year’s “Dig,” will direct.
“Ronán is just a beautiful writer,” Janis said. “You care a lot about the people and the relationships are quite interesting and exciting.”
“Howards End,” Aug. 6-22, Caroline Hewitt’s adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel, is currently being premiered at Portland Stage in Oregon. Margaret and Helen Schlegel are savvy, intellectual women struggling to be heard over the stubborn dominance of England’s early 20th century social strictures. When their lives intersect with two very different men, the sisters’ relationship to each other, themselves, and the way they see the world, change forever.
“It’s a four-hander, so the different actors play multiple characters,” Janis said. “It’s really intriguing. It’s a beautiful piece — and funny and inventive.”
“Native Gardens” by Karen Zacarias, Aug. 27-Sept. 5, was previously produced by Burlington’s Vermont Stage. Pablo and Tania, an ambitious young couple expecting their first child, have just moved next door to community stalwarts Frank and Virginia and their prize-worthy English garden. What begins as a friendly civil dispute over a fence line erupts into a no-holds-barred turf war where cultures, classes and tastes clash. Nobody comes out smelling like a rose.
“We have a wonderful cast lined up for it,” Janis said. “I’m thrilled to bring Karen in and I’m hoping she’ll be able to do some talk and stuff. Just to be able to bring in a top Latina playwright who’s up there nationally, a story that I think folks here will easily relate to, is exciting for us”
Dorset’s Pipeline Series brings theater professionals into week-long workshops culminating in staged readings of a new plays.
“We’re still nailing some of that down,” Janis said. “We’ll probably release some of that information very soon.”
One of this year’s participants will be best-selling Middlebury author-playwright Chris Bohjalian. He’s working on a new stage version of his novel “Midwives,” which Dorset plans to produce in the 2021 season.
“Chris is excited about doing plays now, so we’re excited about this relationship we’ve forged with him,” Janis said. “I think it’ll become the first of projects we’ll develop with him.”
Dorset has also commissioned New York Latina playwright Cusi Cram who is writing a play based on Vermont author Ann Braden’s novel “The Benefits of Being an Octopus” for young audiences.
“It’s about a young girl who lives in a trailer park in Brattleboro,” Janis said. “It’s a story of how she is encouraged by a teacher. It’s a really beautiful story.
“We’ll be doing it in a year,” Janis said. “It’s a really cool feeling starting off with two Vermont novelists and developing work with them that will become part of the dramatic canon — that reflects Vermont but also is going to get out in the world.”
Dorset Theatre Festival plans to continue at the cutting edge of Vermont professional theater.
“It’s a combination of new work and a lot of representation of a lot of great women directors, something we’re getting known for these days,” Janis said. “With our fellowship and commissioning program, it’s letting us deepen a lot of the relationships that we have.”