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Summer theater preview 

Local playhouses have a hot season in store for audiences

Atlanta's summer theatrical offerings skew toward the very new and the very old. The distinction between the two isn't always obvious, given that the summer of 2010 features two productions of Shakespeare plays reimagined as lighthearted musicals.

Georgia Shakespeare launches its 25th anniversary season June 9 with Shrew: The Musical, John R. Briggs and Dennis West's 1993 musicalization of the famed battle of the sexes between manly Petruchio (Joe Knezevich) and fiery Kate (Park Krausen). This singing, dancing Shrew takes place in 1930s Palm Beach, justifying the Jazz Age/Cole Porter quality of the songs and period costumes. I greatly enjoyed the company's 1999 yuletide-themed remount, Shrew the Holiday Musical.

Georgia Shakespeare's other summer plays include the lyrical but relatively low-key comedy Love's Labour's Lost (June 24-Aug. 6), featuring Brad Sherrill and Carolyn Cook. A scholarly prince and his courtiers plan to spend a year in quiet reflection free of romantic entanglements — until a group of lovely ladies moves in next door. The company rounds out its three-play repertory with King Lear (July 8-Aug. 7), starring Tim McDonough as the aging English king whose poor parenting tears England apart. Warning: Even among Shakespearean tragedies, King Lear is the depressing one.

Meanwhile, the New American Shakespeare Tavern tends to avoid concept versions of Shakespeare, but makes an exception for Hamlet! The Musical! (July 9-Aug. 8). This toe-tapping take on the melancholy Dane premiered at Atlanta's Academy Theatre in 1988. It was adapted by Eddie Levi Lee and Rebecca Wackler. Phillip DePoy composed the eclectic original score. Incidentally, the Tavern stages Shakespeare’s intriguing but lesser-known tragedy Coriolanus, with J.C. Long in the title role, through June 27. Check out the Tavern’s amusing Coriolanus Photoshop contest on its website.

For 12 years, Essential Theatre's annual festival of new plays has introduced Atlanta audiences to world and regional premiere scripts. Playing July 8-Aug. 8 at Actor's Express, this year's lineup includes the debut of Qualities of Starlight by Gabriel Jason Dean, winner of the 2010 Essential Theatre Playwriting Award. The play involves an astronomer who discovers that his parents are addicted to crystal meth. Essential's artistic director Peter Hardy penned Sally and Glen at the Palace, an award-winning comedy/drama about two college students working at a movie theater in the 1970s. Essential's biggest show this year is former Poet Laureate Rita Dove's Darker Face of the Earth, which envisions the story of Oedipus on a Southern slave plantation and features a cast of 20.

Perhaps the summer's most intriguing new play is Theatrical Outfit's A Confederacy of Dunces (Aug. 11-Sep. 5), adapted by artistic director Tom Key from John Kennedy Toole's hilarious, New Orleans-based novel of the same name. The comedic misadventures of the amusingly pompous, corpulent Ignatius J. Reilly make for a hefty tome, so it’ll be interesting to see how Key and director Richard Garner trim it down.

Theatre in the Square's world premiere of Stealing Dixie (Aug. 4–Sep. 12) takes inspiration from another Southern source — the Great Locomotive Chase, in which Union soldiers stole a Confederate military train from northern Georgia. The event provided the basis for Buster Keaton's classic silent film The General, but poses some unmistakable challenges for the Marietta theater and playwright Phillip DePoy, who also arranges Civil War-era music for the production.

Audiences interested in edgy new work should consider Pinch n' Ouch Theatre's Reasons to be Pretty at the Alliance Theatre Hertz stage through June 27. Reasons to be Pretty completes a trilogy about body image by playwright Neil LaBute (writer and director of the film In the Company of Men, among others), but allegedly tempers his trademark misanthropy.

Dad's Garage Theatre frequently presents its most quirky, daring shows in its Top Shelf space, often anchored by the reliably amusing actor Matthew Myers. This year, Myers serves as the writer for Spoon, The Musical (July 9-31), which reveals six tales of a haunted spoon from hell (literally) that escapes the underworld to curse anyone who dares use it as tableware.

From Aug. 13-Sept. 4 at OnStage Atlanta, the Process Theatre presents the Southeastern premiere of a show with one of the most provocative titles ever written, Shopping and F**king. English playwright Mark Ravenhill reveals the moral decline of consumer culture by showing debauched young people running rampant in an English shopping mall.

Finally, Jasmine Guy directs one of this summer's most ambitious world premiere plays, I Dream (July 9-31), a musical drama based on the life story of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Written and composed by Douglas Tappin, and showing at the Alliance Theatre, I Dream's operatic narrative spans from King's early days to his 1968 assassination and attempts to encompass one of the most influential lives and time periods in American history. But hey, no pressure.

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