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Lakeside theater Chautauqua company to host three summer productions

When the young director Ethan McSweeny returned to his office at the Chautauqua Institution last week after a trip to New York City, his phone was already ringing off the hook.

It was Playwright's Horizons, the prestigious off-Broadway theater, pleading for McSweeny to return to work on a new production of the play "100 Saints You Should Know." The play, written by Kate Fodor and fine-tuned at the Chautauqua Theatre Company's New Play Workshop last year, is set to open in New York City on Sept. 18.

"I just want to stay here for the next six weeks. I don't want to be going away again," said a wistful McSweeny, who shares the role of co-artistic director of the Chautauqua Theatre Company with his longtime partner, the director and actor Vivienne Benesch. But the pair, both top names in the national theater and acting communities, are intent on sustaining the breakneck velocity of their careers even while transforming Chautauqua into a top destination for theatergoers and talented artists alike.

The upcoming summer season, Benesch said, is an attempt to bring the vanguard of modern theater to Chautauqua and to produce the kind of work they find lacking even in New York City.

The season features three plays: a fresh treatment of "Ah, Wilderness!" by Eugene O'Neill, a new translation of "The Just" by Albert Camus and a Cuban-tinged version of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing." The season will also include two additions to the theater's successful New Play Workshops: "Vaidehi," by Gautam Raja, an experimentally structured look at pregnancy set against the backdrop of modern India; and "Isaac and Ishmael," by David Schulner, a speculative examination of the fathers of two major modern religions.

People have come to expect big things from McSweeny and Benesch since the two took the helm of the theater three years ago. Their time at Chautauqua has been marked by a meteoric ascent in the national stature of the company, which draws advanced theater students from around the country and venerable guest artists from the top ranks of off-Broadway, Broadway and film. The pair's goal is to continue to develop plays like "100 Saints" that go on to big premieres in New York City and to further hone the theater's conservatory component.

"Ah, Wilderness" will feature the two-time Emmy Award-winner Stuart Margolin, along with Amy Van Nostrand, Marcia DeBonis, David Warshofsky and Paul Niebanck -- artists with slews of national film and theater credits whose faces are sure to ring more bells with theatergoers than Notre Dame.

As for the student actors from the theater's expanding conservatory program, McSweeny said that the difference between the guest artists and students is one of experience, not talent.

"This will be your chance to see them now," McSweeny said, "because otherwise you're going to have to buy a ticket to the movies."

For "The Just," which McSweeny will direct, the company has commissioned an entirely new translation by playwright Anthony Clarvoe from the original French. The play is set a century ago and focuses on an attempt by Russian terrorists to assassinate the country's Grand Duke. The play is meant to hold up a mirror to modern terrorist threats and to reveal the complex psychological underpinnings of political violence.

Benesch, who will direct "Much Ado About Nothing," set the play in 1930s Cuba, an atmosphere that she says embodies the kind of machismo and sexuality that perfectly fits what is often called one of the Bard's "problem plays."

As for McSweeny and Benesch -- three years into their tenures and going strong -- the idea of taking a summer off is the last thing on their minds.

"While it may not be a summer vacation," Benesch said of Chautauqua, "it is indeed a summer home."

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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WHAT: Chautauqua Theatre Company summer season

WHEN: First performance at 8 p.m Saturday; season runs through Aug. 18

WHERE: Bratton Theater at the Chautauqua Institution, Chautauqua

TICKETS: Main stage plays, $25; readings, $10

INFO: 357-6250 or www.ctcompany.org

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