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Jury Duty

Sycamore Rouge invites its audience on stage with “Night of January 16th.”

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It's unusual for a theater producer to turn down donations, particularly in today's economy. But in recent weeks Sycamore Rouge's producing artistic director, kb saine — artistically committed to the lower case — has been forced to tell people to keep their money. “I've been offered bribes,” she acknowledges. “But we have a process worked out with the box office. People are chosen at random.”

She's referring to the select few who act as the jury in Sycamore Rouge's production of “Night of January 16th,” a Depression-era courtroom drama written by the famous philosopher Ayn Rand. The Petersburg company opened the show this past weekend. For each performance, 12 audience members sit in a jury box on stage, are sequestered during intermission and render a verdict at the play's conclusion. Their judgment on whether a financial tycoon, Bjorn Faulkner, was murdered or committed suicide determines the content of the final scene.

“I sat in the box during rehearsals,” saine says. “It is a much different perspective that really draws you into the drama. It was really exciting.” In addition to audience involvement and an intriguing murder mystery, the play's smart script, infused with Rand's ideas about radical individualism and unfettered capitalism, surely will inspire much post-performance conversation.

From its inception three years ago, Sycamore Rouge has been committed to involving the people of Petersburg in theatrical experiences in innovative ways. After a particularly strong 2008-'09 season, the company was ready to take that idea to the next, more literal, level. “I think this year we've established ourselves in the community in a lasting way,” saine says. In addition to a main-stage theater season, Sycamore Rouge offers concerts, films and an art gallery at its historic Old Towne venue.

Saine is particularly proud of her Six Blocks series, which offers enterprising independent theater types a chance to stage small-scale productions with Sycamore Rouge's support. The program is modeled after Theatre IV's now-defunct TheatreGym series that spawned some of Richmond's most exciting productions nearly a decade ago. “There aren't many opportunities for experimental theater anymore,” saine says. “We give artists a chance to focus primarily on a play's text and on the acting.”

Though proudly ensconced in Petersburg, saine says: “The picture of what constitutes Richmond theater is expanding.” With the Barksdale Theatre producing shows in Hanover and Stage 1 finding its feet in Mechanicsville, Richmonders have proved willing to wander farther afield when a quality production beckons — and maybe even grease a few palms for the good seats. S

“Night of January 16th” runs through Aug. 8 at Sycamore Rouge, 21 W. Old St. in Petersburg. Tickets are $18-$22. Call 957-5707 for details.

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