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Originally published August 13, 2011 at 7:00 PM | Page modified August 15, 2011 at 4:20 PM

Critic's notebook: In a time of cutbacks, some love for the big cast on stage

The average cast list in professional theaters in Seattle and beyond has been shrinking for a few decades, writes Times theater critic Misha Berson. Can't we make room for some sweeping epics, whose casts can't fit into a Prius?

Seattle Times theater critic

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Commentary |

The upstart group of playwrights branded themselves "Monsterists." They championed the production of more new plays in the U.K., but not just any old plays. In a 2005 manifesto in London's Guardian newspaper, they agitated for more works with a "large scale, large concept and, possibly, large cast work" urging authors to "stop fooling around in little black boxes and think big."

Whether the Monsterists succeeded or not, American playwrights and audiences might take up the fight for the sprawling live drama, the epic theatrical portrait of a place, a time, a social order, a state of being, a swatch of history. This satisfying, epochs-old form is worth reviving.

The average cast list in professional theaters in Seattle and beyond has been shrinking for a few decades.

Apart from the high-density Broadway musicals we see at larger showplaces like the 5th Avenue Theatre, the big-cast Shakespeare shows mounted by major outfits like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, bare-bones readings and the more ambitious college productions, Seattle stages are steeped in the small-is-beautiful ethic — but often, it's more like small-is-affordable.

Professionally produced, modern plays with a dozen or more actors in the cast are rare sightings lately.

The Seattle Repertory Theatre's eight-show, 2011-12 season, for instance, includes two one-actor plays, several works for three to six performers and just one with a slightly larger cast: "Clybourne Park," a Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy by Bruce Norris that calls for seven performers.

ACT's September mounting of the recent Peter Oswald adaptation of Schiller's "Mary Stuart" will bulge at the seams by contrast, with a cast of 14. But ACT's next attraction, a dramatization of the film-noir classic "Double Indemnity," hard-boils its cast down to five actors.

In this regard, Seattle theater simply reflects a national theater trend for modest-sized ensembles.

This, certainly, makes sense from an economic perspective. As our region and country slog through an elongated recession, with no clear signs of recovery and boom in sight, holding the line on production costs is only prudent.

Do the math: A theater's potential ticket income is strictly limited by the number of seats it can sell, no matter how many actors are on the payroll. And box-office receipts need to stretch further, to help make up for the diminishing amount of essential public and private subsidies for the arts.

Of course it would be absurd to claim that populous shows are intrinsically superior in some way to those with fewer performers. The intimacy of a small-cast work can be equally affecting and dynamic.

A magnetic performer alone onstage with a potent script can fill an entire evening to the max — as Mike Daisey recently demonstrated at Seattle Rep, with his timely, stem-winding solo piece, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs."

Playwrights have, in fact, become highly skilled at tailoring their scripts to modest dimensions, and still saying what they intend to say. Their chances of getting a work produced are far greater if it requires few or no set changes and a cast that could fit comfortably into a Prius.

Consider Theresa Rebeck's crackling little heist drama, "Mauritius," staged at Seattle Public Theatre last year. Or Yuseff El-Guindi's insightful, microcosmic romance, "Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World" at ACT this summer, for five actors on a single set.

And troupes like Book-It Repertory Theatre are impressively inventive in figuring out how to distill densely populated novels like "The Cider House Rules" and "A Confederacy of Dunces" into theater pieces that approximate the same sense of heft, but don't break the bank.

Endangered Species Project is an outfit that allows us to hear seasoned pros read past dramas of size. (Next up for the group, in September: an airing of the WWII prisoner-of-war saga "Stalag 17.")

But oh, for a time when living American dramatists don't need to draft plays as if they're planning a dinner party with room for just four, six, even 10 guests at the table!

Alongside the worthy small-scaled tales, can't we find room for the new scripts with the historical sweep and/or human variety of a Shakespeare or Marlowe drama? Or Restoration or Aristophanes comedy? Or the multitudes of a "Porgy and Bess," in which Seattle Opera presents the vision of an entire community onstage?

Theater-makers dating back to the ancient world knew the power in numbers onstage, the effect of intertwining the fates of an array of characters from different tribes, castes, psychological states into a riveting web of tragedy, power, deceit, romance and comedy.

If theater is, as Shakespeare declared, a mirror held up to nature, wouldn't it be grand to not just see a few faces reflected in the glass — but sometimes, also, a crowd?

Yes, in this financial winter of our discontent, it seems like a distant dream for any playwright to dare that. But artists should always be encouraged to dream big.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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