Theater donors nibbled stuffed mushrooms and refilled wine glasses Friday at the Duncan McClellan Gallery, where American Stage Theatre Company announced its new season.
The chit-chat stopped when Stephanie Gularte took the microphone. Gularte has been at the helm as producing artistic director through the current season. But she inherited that lineup from interim artistic director Meg Heimstead, who replaced 11-year artistic director Todd Olson in 2014.
So Friday's announcement signaled more than a fresh list. With a year to fill in a blank slate, in which direction would Gularte take St. Petersburg's oldest professional theater company?
The answers appeared in burst mode, scores of images projected onto a screen too rapidly to fix the eye on any one of them. Montages introduced each of six plays chosen by Gularte for the 2016-2017 season, including one she is adapting herself. Like the season's theme, "In Search of America," the fully automatic submachinegun presentation was bold and hard hitting.
"I selected titles that were true to myself as an artist as well as serving what I see as the best direction for American Stage in the long term," said Gularte, who admitted she was "a little nervous" about how the selections would be received. All are realistic in style and address cultural and political issues head-on.
The season will open with Good People (Sept. 7-Oct. 2) by David Lindsay-Abaires. This sometimes bitter, sometimes tender comedy follows Margie, a South Boston woman who has just gotten fired from her job and wonders if an old fling might be her ticket to a new start. Next is Tartuffe (Oct. 26-Nov. 20), the Moliere farce that offended 17th century French aristocracy. Gularte will adapt this production to reflect on this election year.
"Tartuffe is one of the funniest, most biting pieces," Gularte said. "I kept coming back to that one because there is a figure who kind of captivates some believers, who turns out not to be everything he seems."
American Stage will wrap up the August Wilson Century Cycle with Joe Turner's Come and Gone (Jan. 18-Feb. 19, 2017). Set in a Pittsburgh boarding house in 1911, this play examines the changing landscape of former slaves who have migrated north.
The next three on the list all emerged within the last couple of years, starting with Informed Consent (March 15-April 9, 2017), by Deborah Zoe Laufer. Inspired by a recent court case pitting the Havasupai tribe in the Grand Canyon area against Arizona State University, this play released off-Broadway in 2015) delves into the conflicting priorities of cultural sensitivity and science, women, race and medical research.
The Invisible Hand (May 31-June 25, 2017) by Pulitzer-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar (for Disgraced) centers on the kidnapping of an American investment banker in Pakistan. A suspenseful struggle to meet ransom demands inevitably sheds light on global politics and the dynamics of power.
Sex With Strangers by House of Cards lead writer Laura Eason (July 12-Aug. 6, 2017) pits Olivia, a 39-year-old writer, against Ethan, a successful blogger — or, Gen X meets Gen Y — in a secluded cabin during a snowstorm. This play, which might appear light-hearted, reflects who people are in an age when you can make up your identity online or even create characters out of whole cloth.
Theater patrons cheered as Gularte announced each selection, a reaction she said soothed her nerves. She is pleased to bring "newer works that are creating a real buzz in a couple of cities across the country but have not reached the point of national awareness."
"I always want to be producing theater that is captivating, that grabs the attention of the audience not just for two hours, but also remains with the audience when they leave," Gularte said.
What's missing? The annual big musical in Demens Landing Park. The American Stage in the Park selection will be announced April 15 at the opening of this year's show, Monty Python's Spamalot.
Contact Andrew Meacham at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.