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New home, unchanged appeal

Sarasota's Banyan Theater has moved, and it's putting out the welcome mat in the form of three plays theatergoers aren't likely to find on other local stages.

Published June 30, 2005

Banyan Theater Company opens its fourth season with Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, one of the best-known American plays. Artistic director Gil Lazier hopes that the familiarity of the Williams classic will draw an audience to the Sarasota company's new home, Glenridge Performing Arts Center.

"The concern this summer is moving to the new venue," Lazier said. "We're going to have to hold on to the following we've been able to develop over the last three years and get them out to the Glenridge Center. And also to develop the audience in south Sarasota. At this point we don't know. That's the big challenge."

In previous summers, Banyan performed at USF's New College and at the Asolo Theatre Company in the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, but neither offered good long-term prospects for the company. Glenridge Center, with a 270-seat theater, has been used mainly for concerts since opening a year ago.

"Glenridge has some tremendous assets," Lazier said. "The liability is that it's not within the center of Sarasota. It's south and east of the center of town, in the Palmer Ranch area."

Moving to a new home probably won't hurt Banyan, which has about 4,000 subscribers to its three-play season. The company has carved out a niche for theater in Sarasota during the summer, when the Asolo doesn't operate and Florida Studio Theatre scales back its activity.

"That's the exciting thing about Banyan and one of the major reasons I was attracted to getting involved with the theater," said Lazier, 66, in his first season as artistic director. For 17 years, he was dean of the FSU school of theater, and then in 2001 moved to Sarasota to head the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for actor training for three years.

Lazier directed two Banyan productions in the past two seasons, Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, typical of the company's programming. This summer, along with The Glass Menagerie (today-July 17), the schedule includes two more American plays, Two Rooms by Lee Blessing (July 21-Aug. 7) and Sight Unseen by Donald Margulies (Aug. 11-28). A subscription is $66.

"There is not a theater in this area that builds a season on the kind of plays that we do," Lazier said. "Occasionally you'll see a Shaw at the Asolo, occasionally FST will do a Donald Margulies, and so on, but the Banyan is dedicated to that kind of material. It's a theater of ideas, as I see it, a theater that does scripts that are beautifully written and provocative.

"Each season we've done a very hard to do classic play. Chekhov is tough; Hedda Gabler is a hard play to do. You're dealing with elevated language. You're dealing with scripts that have a certain kind of poetic diction. Menagerie is the same way."

Banyan has drawn from the Asolo's resident company of actors, casting local favorites David Breitbarth, Stephen Johnson, Brad Wallace and Doug Jones in previous seasons. Colleen McDonnell and Jeff Norton, both well-known Tampa Bay area actors, appeared in last summer's Uncle Vanya, and McDonnell will return in Sight Unseen. Sharon Spelman, an Asolo actor, plays Amanda in The Glass Menagerie, and Sarah Stockton, an FSU/Asolo Conservatory graduate, plays Laura.

Last September, Lazier was head of the jury of the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theater, spending two weeks in Egypt to evaluate 22 productions from 24 countries. Not surprisingly, many of the Arab productions, he said, were "highly political, extremely anti-American parables."

Lazier's choice to direct Two Rooms for Banyan this summer was not necessarily inspired by his Egyptian sojourn, but the subject matter is apt. It's about a hostage crisis in Lebanon.

"It's very politically charged, and it's very relevant to what's going on now," he said. "It's a play we should be doing."


The Banyan Theater production of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams opens today and runs through July 17 at Glenridge Performing Arts Center, Honore Avenue and Palmer Ranch Parkway, Sarasota. $27.50. (941) 552-5325.

[Last modified June 29, 2005, 09:43:07]

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