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The midseason playbill ; Buffalo theaters head into 2011 with a parade of tempting shows

As the theater scene in Western New York continues to grow and extend its reach across all the seasons, it's become harder to pin down a definite midpoint to our "theater season."

Even so, it helps to take a bit of a breather in the middle of the now-borderless theater season to sort out the best of what we've seen so far and make some educated guesses about the must-see productions on the horizon.

From now through the summer, a parade of tantalizing productions will pass across Buffalo's stages. These will include ambitious projects by local playwrights and dancers, classics with big casts, shoestring productions of daring material and major Broadway spectacles.

Keeping in mind that Western New York's many theater companies are always full of surprises and that such guesswork is rarely foolproof, here are just a few upcoming productions to keep on your radar (with a heavy emphasis on the next few weeks).

*"Bitch Bares All," today through Feb. 13 in the Road Less Traveled Theatre. Lisa Vitrano, a veteran of the Buffalo theater scene with a lengthy resume to prove it, has penned her first one-woman show. The provocatively titled piece chronicles Vitrano's own experience as a teen mother (she gave birth to her son, who is now 23, when she was 17) and the trials and relationships that followed. Vitrano plays 15 characters in the course of the one-act production. The piece is the result of many years of work and workshopping, Vitrano said.

"They always say to look into your own experiences," Vitrano said of the writing process. "The most powerful events in my experience have been the birth of my son and essentially growing up with him."

*"Cowboy Mouth," today through Feb. 12 in Buffalo East, produced by the American Repertory Theatre of Western New York. It's not all that often we get to see the work of Sam Shepard in these parts, so when the opportunity arises, it's best to take it. Rarer still is a collaboration between Shepard and Patti Smith, the artist and songwriter with whom he developed this 1974 play about the contradictions of the artistic condition. The show will be worth checking out as much for the whacked-out material as for its relatively new and cozy venue and to observe the creative work of ART.

*"Pirandello's Wife," Thursday to Feb. 19 in Alleyway Theatre. In the recording of obscure events, history often captures few details but suggests great mystery. This is the fertile creative space built for modern-day practitioners of historical fiction and drama, of which Welsh playwright Lynn Elliott is one. The world premiere of his new play at Alleyway will explore the life and mind of Antonietta Portulano, the wife of Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello, who was locked up in an insane asylum for reasons Elliott suggests are dubious. The play chronicles her creative attempts -- a little "Man of La Mancha" here, a little "Shutter Island" there -- to prove her sanity to her incredulous captors and fellow might-be maniacs.

*"Fall of the House of Usher," Feb. 10 to March 6 in Torn Space Theatre's Adam Mickiewicz Library and Dramatic Circle. Steven Berkhoff's adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's uber-eerie short story will be directed by Irish Classical Theatre Company Artistic Director Vincent O'Neill on the Torn Space stage. This collaboration brings together Buffalo's most celebrated classical theater company with its most boundary-pushing avant-garde outfit, a fusion that might seem unlikely to outsiders. But collaborations between the two companies have produced big sparks in the past and seem likely to continue doing so, especially with a piece of common ground so well-chosen as Poe's short masterpiece of the macabre.

*"Something So Right," April 16 and 17 in the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts. This original production, described by choreographer John Lehrer as a "music, theater and dance experience," is an outside-the-box collaboration -- long in the making -- among LehrerDance, MusicalFare Theatre and the Center for the Arts. It features a mix of song and modern dance (heavy on the modern dance), all set to the music of Paul Simon. The show stars the members of LehrerDance, along with MusicalFare regulars John Fredo and Terrie George.

*"Young Frankenstein," March 22 to 27 in Shea's Performing Arts Center. This musical comedy from the wonderfully twisted minds of Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, based on their 1974 film of the same title, aims to have audiences falling out of their seats. It's been a long while since Shea's Broadway series has hosted a truly side-splitting musical comedy ("Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" in 2007 is the last rolling-in-the-aisles show I can recall, not counting last year's unintentionally hilarious production of "Grease"). So hopes are high that Brooks' schticky songs and quirky lyrics will deliver plenty of laughs.

*"Shining City," April 28 to May 22 in the Irish Classical Theatre Company's Andrews Theatre. The Irish Classical, though it is perhaps best known for shows featuring in excess of a dozen actors, does some of its best work with small ensembles. This ghost story, by the wonderfully macabre Irish playwright Conor McPherson ("The Weir," "The Seafarer"), provides a perfect opportunity for four actors to weave theatrical magic. It stars theater vets Vincent O'Neill and Chris Kelly alongside Kelly Meg Brennan and newcomer Mike Renna in an eerie story that centers around a distraught widower and his therapist.

Other shows to be on the lookout for in the next few months: Theatre of Youth's "Number the Stars," (next Friday to Feb. 13), a collaboration with the Holocaust Resource Center of Buffalo; Playhouse of American Classic's off-book production of "Angel Street" (next Friday to Feb. 6); Buffalo Laboratory Theatre's production of "Standing on My Knees" on a date to be announced; Buffalo United Artists' "Next Fall" (March 11 to April 2); Shea's return engagement of the wildly popular "Wicked" (April 27 to May 22); New Phoenix Theatre's "Inherit the Wind" (March 17 to April 9) and Jewish Repertory Theatre's "Lebensraum" (May 5 to 29).

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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