'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,' 'King Lear' among offers

SAN FRANCISCO — King Lear, Maggie the Cat and Ebenezer Scrooge are among the strange bedfellows who will take part in American Conservatory Theater’s 39th season, artistic director Carey Perloff announced Monday.

Those three rep a familiar rep roll call, to say the least. But in each case there’s a reason for the A.C.T. revisit.

“King Lear,” the company’s first mainstage Shakespeare production in a decade, offers James Cromwell in the title role. “I believe the play is about the end of the world,” said the actor, noting it speaks to “a time of crisis, both in Shakespeare’s time and our own.” He hinted the May 2006 staging will make explicit parallels between persecution during the King James period of the Bard’s writing and latter-day abuses in Iraq, Rwanda, Bosnia, etc.

Cromwell triumphed as A.E. Housman in A.C.T.’s American premiere of Tom Stoppard’s “The Invention of Love” several seasons back.

A production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” this fall honors the play’s 50th anniversary — as well as core company member Rene Augesen’s desire to play Maggie. Israel Hicks, who helmed last season’s “Levee James,” directs and is expected by Perloff to “bring all the steam from” the torrid work Williams considered his best.

‘Carol’ reconceived

Perhaps the biggest news of the season, in institutional terms, is that the hardest-working adaptation in showbiz — the Laird Williamson/Dennis Powers version of “A Christmas Carol” — will finally retire after 27 years as an A.C.T. Yuletide tradition and reliable box office draw. Opening just after Thanksgiving in its place will be a “reconceived” version of the Dickens story, devised by dramaturg Paul Walsh and Perloff (who’ll direct).

Latter promises a “very beautiful and magical production,” with costume designer Beaver Bauer already on board, as well as Tony-nominated set designer Thomas Lynch (“The Music Man”) and composer Karl Fredrik Lundeberg.

Deciding on a season opener, Perloff said she worried, “How can you ever follow ‘The Black Rider’?,” referring to the avant-garde collaboration between Tom Waits, Robert Wilson and William Burroughs that was a smash last autumn.

As an answer, she found another imported music piece that’s “its own kind of wonderful event,” Gogol-derived Canadian production “The Overcoat.” Created by Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling and set to Shostakovich’s music, this Buster Keatonesque little-man-vs.-machine spectacle features 22 actors and no spoken text. It preemed to raves in 1997 in Vancouver; CanStage’s revival will arrive at the Geary in late August as part of an ongoing U.S. tour.

Stemming from reality

Perloff said she fought hard to secure West Coast premiere rights for Caryl Churchill’s “A Number,” calling it “one of the few really great plays of the last few years” — and one particularly relevant to the Bay Area, which looks poised to become the international center of stem-cell research. Steppenwolf’s Anna Shapiro will direct in her A.C.T. bow.

Rounding out the season are new stagings (directors TBA) of Sheridan’s Restoration comedy classic “The Rivals” — never staged by A.C.T. before — and Mamet’s 1974 breakthrough play “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.” Latter scribe is repped at the Geary by his new adaptation of “The Voysey Inheritance,” which opened last week.

A seventh mainstage subscription production, currently being negotiated, will be announced in coming weeks.

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