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Originally published Sunday, October 16, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Theater

A new wave of fringe theater groups hits Seattle

The dress code is casual. The action is live. The ticket prices peak at $20, or less. The actors are trained, gifted, fearless, unjaded...

Seattle Times theater critic

The dress code is casual. The action is live. The ticket prices peak at $20, or less. The actors are trained, gifted, fearless, unjaded. The scripts are fresh or tantalizingly obscure. Or classics that have been re-thought, revitalized, reassembled.

That is fringe theater at its idealized best. And that is the kind of grassroots artistic ingenuity needed to keep Seattle's theater scene vital — for audiences and artists and, yes, for critics.

The quality of the so-called "fringe" — the ever-changing circle of independent Seattle troupes with large creative aspirations and modest means — is a cyclical thing. Today (knock wood), it's on the upswing.

Is it the wildly imaginative, thrillingly relevant fringe scene of my dreams? No. Curiously, there is a dearth here of provocative, topical fare that ignites discussion and makes theater part of the public debate about burning issues of war, peace, class, race, et al.

But there are compensations. I can count five new (or newly prominent) companies that aren't just proving themselves worthy of serious attention, but also making much of that increasingly rare luxury, in this real-estate market: a home theater space.

On Capitol Hill, we have the Washington Ensemble Theatre and the Capitol Hill Arts Center. Over in trendy Ballad, there's Live Girls!. The Seattle Public Theater has begun to distinguish itself in the old Bathhouse Theatre at Green Lake. And Tyrone Brown's lively Brownbox Theatre is staking out its first season in residence at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center.

For the full prolific spread of today's fringe scene, look to this newspaper's theater listings or the useful drama Web site, www.seattleperforms.com. Alongside offerings by larger, fully unionized companies like Seattle Rep and 5th Avenue Theatre, and such well-established fringers as Theater Schmeater and ReAct, a couple dozen ambitious fringe newbies are in play — from Atlas Theatre and Bad Monkey Productions, to Psychopomp and Strawberry Theater Collective.

I know what you're thinking: So who needs more theater groups in this town? Especially given how, in the last several years:

• The Seattle Fringe Festival went bust;

• Some noted fringe troupes (Theatre Under the Influence, Theatre Babylon) stopped producing, while some debt-strapped, professional companies (ACT, Empty Space) barely escaped going bust; and

• More and more shows are vying for the same limited pool of paying patrons.

Frankly, Seattle does not need more gypsy bands of stage artists — right? Sure. Unless, of course, they offer us inspired productions and alluring new works we wouldn't see otherwise.

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And introduce us to emerging actors, directors, writers, designers of rich promise. And offer bolder, friskier, quirkier alternatives to the mainstream.

Few fringe troupes pull off such feats consistently. Show by show, the mixed bags and misfires will always outnumber the triumphs: Those are just the odds of the game and the privileges of the laboratory.

But something is shakin' out there these days. We're seeing more original scripts on the fringe. More Seattle premieres of intriguing works from elsewhere. More young actors worth cheering and nurturing.

One could speculate on the sociological, political or cosmic reasons for the surge. But all we really know is that it won't last forever.

So now's the time for theater adventurers to roam, to explore, to sample. And here's a few tips about what's looming for those five resident fringe outfits named earlier:

Seattle Public Theater. Led by artistic director Shana Bestock, this increasingly capable production house will introduce Seattle to some Off Broadway attention-grabbers during the next year. Look to next April's run of "Lobby Hero," about a young security cop facing a moral dilemma, by lauded dramatist-filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan, and in May, "The Intelligent Life of Jenny Chow," Rollin Jones' "techno-comedy" about a Chinese American teen who invents a robot alter-ego. Details: 206-524-1300 or www.seattlepublictheater.org

Washington Ensemble Theatre . A high-octane team of actors is the main draw for WET, founded by grads of UW's Professional Actors Training Program. The WET folks dare to create original pieces, with uneven results (coming up: "Wonderful Life," a new holiday show). But we can also expect them to rock out on Adam Bock's comedy about working-class romance, "Swimming in the Shallows" (next February). Information: 206-325-5105 or www.washingtonensemble.org

Capitol Hill Arts Center . The hip culture hub led by Matthew Kwatinetz is the rare for-profit fringe house: CHAC funds its theatrical wing from the profits of a popular onsite restaurant (Crave) and a basement cocktail lounge. The theater programming is director-driven, and this season two of CHAC's best helmers, Sheila Daniels and John Abramson, will respectively mount Steven Dietz's "God Country" (about the hate-crime murder of a liberal Denver radio host), and Harold Pinter's absurdist classic "The Birthday Party." Details: 206-388-0500 or www.capitolhillarts.com

Live Girls! Though director Megan Arnette and her crew have been quietly fostering the work of women scribes since 1999, this spunky group is fairly new to us. And gaining more attention thanks to the growing maturity of their work and a recent move from under the viaduct to downtown Ballard.

Their next venture: a batch of staged readings and workshops of new scripts by gal writers from Texas, New York and Seattle, including young Jacqueline Hamilton, a sophomore at Franklin High School. Information: 800-838-3006 or www.livegirlstheater.org

Brownbox Theatre . Based on "Hamlet X," artistic director Tyrone Brown's savvy resetting of "Hamlet" in a Black Muslim context, this company's first season in residence at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center is off to a good start.

And Brown is posing himself further challenges, including James Baldwin's gospel-music drama, "The Amen Corner," and Seattle playwright Cheryl West's "Before It Hits Home," a 1993 drama about AIDS in the African-American community. Details: 206-335-7020.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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