Acting out: Local troupes electrify the boards

If Paris is the cultural capital of Europe, and Chicago is the Paris of the Midwest, then Charlottesville is the Chicago of Central Virginia.

Confusing, perhaps, but true, particularly when it comes to theater. Like Chicago, Charlottesville combines a wide variety of theatrical venues with an openness toward the nonprofessional theater community that is all but unknown in certain larger and more famous cities– which will, of course, remain nameless.

Charlottesville theater's summer offerings would be at home in any city's central park. The Ash Lawn Opera Festival features world-class outdoor productions of works from the classic operatic repertoire, as well as great American works from the likes of Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hammerstein.

In nearby Barboursville, the Four County Players breathe new life into the Bard of Avon amid the green hills of the Barboursville Vineyards and the stately ruins of Governor James Barbour's mansion.

Meanwhile, indoors, the Heritage Repertory Theater Company electrifies the stage of UVA's Culbreth Theater with musical and dramatic works, and Live Arts produces an energetic Summer Theater Festival in July and August. And both are only a taste of what local theaters have to offer the rest of the year.

Gilbert & Sullivan at the New Lyric Theater. High-spirited revivals at ACT I. Children's shows at Old Michie Theater and Community Children's Theater. Mainstage and second-stage productions at the UVA drama department, Piedmont Virginia Community College, and Live Arts. Visiting performers from around the country and around the globe. It's easy to forget you're 400 miles off-Broadway, and hard to regret it.

Fittingly enough for a university town, Charlottesville offers as many opportunities to students of theater-&endash; from kindergarten puppeteers to UVA and PVCC undergrads to theater professionals seeking new horizons-&endash; as it does to spectators. Classes at the Community Children's Theatre and the Old Michie Theater let school-age actors try their hand at any variety of stagecraft they can imagine.

The Arts Center Ensemble gives master classes in subjects from mask making to stage combat. The highly adventurous Foolery periodically hosts experimental theater workshops with outside ensembles, as well as conducting its own.

It's little wonder that Charlottesville's largely amateur theater community is as vibrant, imaginative, and active as those found in cities 10 times its size. If this weren't enough, the soon-to-be-completed renovation of the Paramount Theater and construction of the new Live Arts complex on Water Street promise to make the coming year's scene more exciting than ever.

Charlottesville may not be the City of Lights or the City by the Lake. It may be closer to a Ripe Grape than a Big Apple. But the stages of our Stratford-on-Rivanna can take you anywhere in the world.