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Off-center stage.

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Swift Creek Mill Theater raised some eyebrows this month by opening its 2007-08 season with "Urinetown: The Musical." A show about a town awash in -- well, you know — seemed a bit edgy for a company best known for its feel-good musicals and slamming-door farces.

But as it turns out, the Mill was just setting the stage for an autumn full of dark, deviant and downright twisted shows — a veritable cavalcade of oddity that will challenge many local theatergoers. When the story of a child who looks like a rodent (Theatre IV's "Stuart Little" (Oct. 5-21) seems comparatively normal, you know there's weirdness afoot this season.

Certainly the strangest fall show of all will be the next offering from the Firehouse Theatre Project, which seemed to have broken the last possible taboo with 2005's "The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?" But making its Richmond premiere Sept. 13 (and running through Oct. 6), "Mr. Marmalade" takes surrealism to the next level. The title character is the cocaine-snorting, sex-toy-wielding imaginary friend of Lucy, an emotionally disturbed 4-year-old girl who finds extreme ways to deal with her parents' divorce. Other characters include a suicidal 5-year-old and a criminally neglectful babysitter. The 2005 Off-Broadway production of "Marmalade" was criticized for being too broad, an indication that Firehouse director Rusty Wilson's naturalistic style may be a good fit for the material.

Almost by definition, the gay-centric Richmond Triangle Players (RTP) regularly push the envelope. The campy "Zanna, Don't" (Sept. 19-Oct. 13), continues that tradition. Set in a parallel universe where homosexuality is the norm, the musical chronicles the complications that arise in Heartsville, USA, when a potential hetero love affair blossoms.

After the frothy whimsy of "Zanna," things turn decidedly darker at RTP with the pitch-black Christmas comedy, "The Eight: Reindeer Monologues" (Nov. 14-Dec. 8), which is rife with sexual abuse, rape and adultery. You may never think of Ole Saint Nick in the same way.

The specter of death haunts several shows this fall, most distinctly in the first production from the former Living Word Stage Company, recently renamed the African-American Repertory Theatre. "A Lesson Before Dying" (Oct. 26-Nov. 18) tells the powerful tale of an innocent man condemned to the electric chair in 1948 and the teacher enlisted to help him "die like a man."

For those who like a touch of suspense mixed with death, Barksdale at Hanover Tavern will offer "Deathtrap" (Sept. 14-Oct. 21), the convoluted mystery that's thrilled audiences since its Broadway debut in 1979.

But death doesn't have to be all doom and gloom, as Chamberlayne Actors Theatre will try to prove with its staging of the comedy "Leading Ladies" (Oct. 24-Nov. 10). The latest madcap romp from playwright Ken Ludwig, author of "Lend Me a Tenor" and "Moon Over Buffalo," features a pair of down-on-their-luck thespians trying to scam a dying old lady out of her fortune. When they decide to pose as the woman's nieces, the result is three classic elements of farce — death, money and cross-dressing — crammed together in one play.

Even the local university theater programs are going Goth, with Theatre VCU planning a production of "Dracula" (Nov. 9-18) and University of Richmond offering "Macbeth" (Nov.15-18). Is there any respite in this theater season teeming with treachery, darkness, and peculiarity?

The best alternative may be "The Member of the Wedding," opening at Barksdale's Willow Oaks location (Sept 21-Oct 28). In it, a 12-year old tomboy dreams about escaping to the Alaskan wilderness as her family prepares for her brother's wedding. It's a story about disaffected youth but, as far as I know, no one dies or is accused of sexual assault, making it possibly the most straight-laced and cheery show of the lot. S



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