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Opening night; 'Philadelphia Story' launches new season at Chautauqua

Last year, the ambitious Chautauqua Theater Company opened its season with director Brian Mertes's experimental take on Anton Chekhov's famous play "Three Sisters."

Audience reactions to the director's unorthodox approach, which included the insertion of music at unexpected moments and actors throwing themselves on offstage mattresses, were of the love-hate variety.

The CTC, under the leadership of Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch and her collaborator Ethan McSweeny (now having stepped back slightly to become the company's resident director), will undoubtedly challenge the intellectually adventurous Chautauqua audience again. But this season, whether by design or not, the company is kicking things off with a kind of prize to its audience for indulging them in last year's bold Chekhovian experiment.

The season -- now back to three full productions and two new play workshops from the curtailed programming of the last two years -- opens tonight with Philip Barry's "The Philadelphia Story." The play was a hit when it debuted on Broadway with Katharine Hepburn in 1939 and an even bigger one when it was turned into a film the following year with Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart.

Benesch said the company's first production -- a "witty, charming, bubbly" affair -- will feature the work of the company's exclusive student conservatory under the direction of CTC associate artistic director Andrew Borba. "The Philadelphia Story" runs through July 8.

To cast the student roles, Benesch saw more than 500 students from a dozen major acting programs across the country, ranging from Yale, Juilliard and New York University to the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco.

For the first time, the company will present a world premiere commission as part of its main season. Kate Fodor's play "50 Ways," a look at the vagaries of long-term relationships, will be directed by McSweeny. It runs July 20 to 29.

"The intention was that we would probably do a New Play Workshop [production] of it this year, but it was in such great shape already in the fall that we really decided, what an opportunity for us to produce the world premiere of this beautiful, beautiful new play," Benesch said.

"I don't want to give anything away, but to say that the play deals with the many ways in which we leave each other, or plot and plan to leave each other, or fantasize about leaving each other -- or, most importantly, fear that we will be left."

The season also contains two New Play Workshop readings, of Nikole Beckwith's "Everything Is Ours" from July 12 to 14 and Zayd Dohrn's "Muckrakers" from Aug. 2 to 4.

Finally, the company is closing out its season, as it always does, with a Shakespearean work chosen and directed to make use of the company's conservatory. This time it's a production of the summer classic "As You Like It," transposed to the demimonde of American mobsters in the 1930s. The show, directed by Jackson Gay, runs from Aug. 10 to 17.