Fall theater 2014: Classics by Beckett, Foote, Orton will arise anew

Gian-Murray Gianino, center, as Xerxes in "Persians" by Aeschylus at the Getty Villa.
Gian-Murray Gianino, center, as Xerxes in “Persians” by Aeschylus at the Getty Villa.
(Craig Schwartz / Getty Villa)

The fall season always brings the hope that something new will astonish us. I’m betting that a few old works might fit the bill.

Perhaps I’m in a retrospective state of mind because my post-Labor Day theatergoing began at the beginning, with “Persians,” Aeschylus’ rarely revived tragedy from 472 BC. The play, given a new gloss by the innovative director Anne Bogart and her SITI Company at the Getty Villa (through Sept. 27), tells the story of a ruinous imperialistic war, but such tales are sadly never old news.

Fall arts preview 2014: The season in music, theater and more


Next for me was a newfangled version of “The Tempest” at South Coast Repertory (through Sept. 28) that transforms Shakespeare’s play into a musical extravaganza replete with special effects and Houdini-style legerdemain. Adapted and directed by Aaron Posner and Teller (of Penn & Teller), the production, which started at Las Vegas’ Smith Center, updates this late romance with the music of Tom Waits, the contortionist choreography of Pilobolus and a whole mess of card tricks.

But there are many ways of making the classics new again, and not all of them entail such extreme measures as the cool grace of Bogart’s aesthetic or the rough magic of Posner and Teller’s reinvention. More straightforward investigations can also be revelatory.

The Theatre @ Boston Court is taking a reprieve from its customary menu of new work to bring us Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days,” directed by Andrei Belgrader. The production, which runs through Oct. 12, promises a fresh perspective on the landscape of environmental apocalypse — something we shouldn’t have such difficulty imagining in these days of endless drought.

What’s really tantalizing is the prospect of a veteran auteur confronting Beckett’s metaphorical living grave, with a real-life married couple (Brooke Adams and Tony Shalhoub) playing the defiantly upbeat Winnie and her sounding board husband, Willie. Which will be emphasized this time around, tragedy or comedy? Or could this promising revival arrive at a rare equipoise? With Belgrader’s expertise, it’s reasonable to think the latter.

“The Trip to Bountiful,” which opens at the Ahmanson Theatre on Sept. 26, reanimates Horton Foote’s drama with a largely African American cast led by the eternally vibrant Cicely Tyson. Tyson won a Tony for her performance as the elderly matriarch Carrie Watts, who’s on the lam from her son and daughter-in-law (played by Blair Underwood and Vanessa Williams) as she tries to make her way to her hometown for one final visit.

But don’t expect that issues of race will be the main order of business in Michael Wilson’s production. When this revival was seen on Broadway in 2013, it was the universal human dynamics of Foote’s enduring play that were the central focus.

Shakespeare has been done in every conceivable fashion, but what strikes me as the most radical approach today is respect for character and language. This is why I have a keen interest in the “Othello” that opens at the Odyssey Theatre on Oct. 18 with A Martinez in the title role. This production, directed by Rogue Machine’s John Perrin Flynn, has the added interest of accomplished Shakespeare veteran Jack Stehlin as Iago. An intimate space, a director with a keen appreciation for a sinewy dramatic poetry and an actor who knows how to make villainous monologues sound like freshly minted thought — this revival has the makings of a rediscovery.

How nice to see Joe Orton’s name crop up at the Mark Taper Forum. His farces are hilarious but pose traps for directors. Nothing, after all, ages as quickly as comic conventions. Fortunately, Orton’s iconoclastic black humor was so far ahead of its time that it still has the power to rejuvenate even when the playwriting occasionally shows its age.

The Taper production of “What the Butler Saw,” which opens Nov. 23, has taken out extra insurance by going with experience. John Tillinger, who knows Orton’s work as well as anyone working today, is directing, and actor Paxton Whithead, who is a master of British comedy at its epigrammatic best, will surely set a high bar for the cast with his supple wit.

Other revivals worth noting: Whitmore Eclectic’s production of “‘night, Mother” at the Lost Studio (opening Oct. 25), the Shakespeare’s Globe small-scale touring production of “King Lear” at the Broad Stage (opening Nov. 5) and the return of a play that isn’t quite a classic but is too good to be forgotten: Diana Son’s “Stop Kiss” (opening at the Pasadena Playhouse Nov. 9).

On Broadway, the opening that has me champing at the bit is Edward Albee’s 1966 drama of haute angst, “A Delicate Balance,” which opens Nov. 20 at the John Golden Theatre in a production directed by Pam MacKinnon and starring John Lithgow, Glenn Close and that astringent wonder, Lindsay Duncan.

For inveterate theatergoers, part of the intrigue is seeing how contemporary theater artists will construct a bridge enabling characters from an eternal present to move between their author’s age and our own.