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Sarasota's Asolo Conservatory presents plays by Stoppard and Durang

Cast in the FSU/Asolo Conservatory's production of "The Real Inspector Hound." Frank Atura/PUBLICITY PHOTO
Cast in the FSU/Asolo Conservatory's production of "The Real Inspector Hound." Frank Atura/PUBLICITY PHOTO

Greg Leaming had spent a few months trying to pick a short play to pair with Tom Stoppard's "The Real Inspector Hound."

"I had a lot of ideas," he said, "and one by one I threw them all away."

It was pretty much at the last minute that he came up with idea of using Christopher Durang's "The Actor's Nightmare." It turned out to be a perfect fit.

"They're both very absurdist looks at the theater," said Leaming, "but they take very different approaches."

Leaming is the director of the FSU/Asolo Conservatory Training, and he's directing the season-opening production.

Besides its thematic connection to the Stoppard play, "The Actor's Nightmare" had the advantage of being designed as a "curtain-raiser." It's a short piece, only about a half-hour long, and Durang wrote it to be a curtain-raiser for one of his best-known plays, "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You."

Besides that, Leaming said, he was able to cast all 12 of the Asolo Conservatory's second-year students in the two plays -- many of them are in both -- and give them and artistic workout.

Stoppard wrote "The Real Inspector Hound" when he was still a young playwright, not long after his first big success with "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead."

"He was infuriated by 'The Mousetrap,' " Leaming said. "He couldn't believe that such a lousy play was so popular."

("The Mousetrap" is an Agatha Christie play that has been running in London since 1952.)

Stoppard's absurdist farce is partly a parody of "The Mousetrap." Two theater critics are in the audience for a production of an Agatha Christie-style mystery play, but they end up on stage, caught in the action of the play-within-a-play and unable to escape.

The Durang play concerns an accountant who finds himself about to go onstage in a play. He has no recollection of being cast in a play and doesn't know any of the lines. Once he's onstage, the play seems to switch between "Hamlet," "A Man for All Seasons," Noel Coward's "Private Lives" and a fictional Samuel Beckett play called "Checkmate."

It's based, Leaming said, on a dream that actors often have, in which they're onstage and have no idea what they're supposed to say.

They're both demanding plays for actors, Leaming said, and the student cast is handling the difficult material expertly and enthusiastically.

For audiences, the two one-act plays offer a hilarious evening by two 20th-century masters, and a look at the actors who will be on stage at Asolo Repertory Theatre next year.

The two one-acts make up the first production of the Asolo Conservatory's 2015-16 season. The others are "The Liar" by David Ives, Shakespeare's "Macbeth," and "Nora," Ingmar Bergman's adaptation of Ibsen's "A Doll's House."

Details: Nov. 4-22, Cook Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $29 standard, $14.50 student. Information: 941-351-8000, asolorep.org.

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