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Why do we call the roped-off areas for prizefights "rings" when they aren't even round? The question arose at the new production by the Kittamaqundi Theatre, "Two By Ten," being performed on a central square stage made to resemble just such a "boxing ring."

The small green riser suggests a stretched canvas and the hanging light bars above it an enclosure of ropes. All that director Alan Peterkovsky is missing is a referee for his 10 rounds of scenes documenting the marathon battle of the sexes.

Each scene involves two actors (hence the title) in a veritable Whitman's Sampler of great plays, from "Lysistrata" by Aristophanes to "Private Lives" by Noel Coward, with some less worthy confections like "On Golden Pond" tossed in to ensure that no sweet tooth goes wanting.

The cast of 10 represents the best thespian talent in our community, so when they are in sync with their material you'll wish they were serving up the whole meal and not just desserts. At moments, a pair of performers here might even evoke an entirely different sort of ring: the ring of truth.

Less often _ when the cuttings aren't well-chosen or the actors are subtly struggling with blocking, body language or accent _ the program seems more like finals week in college acting class.

Thanks to the quality of the writing, though, the entertainment value is consistently high. One thing all scenes have in common, even more than an interest in gender, is their love of language. Whether couched in rhymed couplets, dripping with venomous wit, adorned in alliteration or festooned with droll sophistication, the dialogue crackles like a dry prairie fire. Even while pressing an indictment, these playwrights escape the smugness, cynicism and sarcasm rampant in today's more liberal climate.

When it comes to the dichotomy of men and women, Peterkovsky doesn't always opt for the obvious choices. For Shakespeare, as an example, he gives us "Richard III" instead of a more pointed relationship study like "Othello" or "The Taming of the Shrew." That scene and the next, from Moliere's exquisite "Tartuffe," have more to do with ethics and ambition, it seems to me, than with gender politics.

But these are followed by a cutting from "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde that addresses man's eagerness to deceive and woman's to be otherwise engaged. And Act 1 ends very much on topic with George Bernard Shaw's bruising final round in "Pygmalion" between Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle.

After intermission, the matches continue with two lightweights in period domestic comedy _ Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse's "Life With Father" and James Goldman's anachronistic recasting of King Henry II as a witty romantic lead in "The Lion in Winter."

Some of the night's freshest acting comes from well-known supporting players getting a crack at star parts. These include Bob Hollis and Dede Newport as aging Kansas lovers whose relationship reaches an anguished crisis in William Inge's "Picnic." Both actors are stretched by the emotion of the piece and deliver surprising nuance.

Hollis returns in the "Golden Pond" segment, slipping unpretentiously into the skin of a frail retiree good-humoredly jousting with death. While he eludes any comparisons to Henry Fonda, co-star Barbara Franklin can't help but invite them with her vocal similarities to Katherine Hepburn. That's a pity, for she appears more than capable in her own right.

Community favorite Bruce Leipold is stretched in a different direction by "Tartuffe," wresting chuckles out of seduction by turning Moliere's religious charlatan into a solicitous popinjay. His co-star, Karen Kellner, proves an excellent foil here, then reappears with a very different bearing and demeanor in "Pygmalion." The latter becomes the evening's standout scene due to Kellner's poise and the flawless authority of Chuck Palenik as the Shavian arbiter of all human behavior, Henry Higgins.

Elizabeth Ogrin comes off better at being fatuous in "Earnest" than principled in "Lysistrata." The Wilde piece also allows co-star Steve Bruun to loosen up and get some earned laughs.

Similarly, Jenny Leopold and Steve Beall appear at sea in the overly complex cutting from "Richard III" but more than make up for it with the sophisticated give-and-take of "Private Lives."

While the program promises blood and bruises, the evening's dominant tone is comic, which seemed just fine with the opening-night audience. Most of the tentativeness in the acting should be gone by this weekend's final performances _ and isn't that always the glass jaw of community theater?

"Two By Ten" by the Kittamaqundi Theatre continues May 4 and 5, at 8 p.m. at Oliver's Carriage House (Vantage Point Road, Columbia, 410-997-3981 or 410-997-0937). Tickets are $10 general, with proceeds benefitting the Sexual Trauma Treatment Advocacy and Recovery Center.

"I wanted something for our first musical that would be small but had good roles," says director Conni Ross of this weekend's opening of "The Fantasticks" by the Columbia Community Players.

The show that made the record books as the longest-running musical in American theater history (it opened in 1960 and can still be seen at New York's Sullivan Street Playhouse) is now set to be the first full-blown musical production in the Columbia troupe's 28-year history.

The choice makes sense: The tuneful Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt take on "Romeo and Juliet" needs little in the way of big-budget stage pyrotechnics and requires just eight actors. But it also has a heartwarming plot (two neighboring fathers stage a feud as a way of driving their kids into one another's arms), and features some unforgettable songs ("Try to Remember").

"It's one of my favorite shows," says Ross, who calls the challenge "nerve-racking."

"There's a lot of pressure putting it all together. The acoustics in Slayton House aren't that good, and we had to move the show off the stage and onto the floor" to give it more intimacy.

Ross has directed musicals before, most notably a large-scale Centennial High School student-adult production of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" in 1998. But there she had the resources of the high school at her disposal.

"Community theater is all volunteer, so you end up doing lots of different things," notes the Ellicott City resident. "I'm not only directing, I'm working on lights and costumes."

Helping to make Ross' job easier is Centennial High drama teacher Mo Dutterer, whom she cast in the important narrator's role of El Gallo. Two other actors are former Dutterer students _ Mike Offenheiser, who plays the young lover, and Chris Harris, who portrays The Man Who Dies.

Another high school actor, Laura Hughes, is playing the young female lead, Luisa.

Talent comes from other areas as well. Ross found her music director in Silver Spring lawyer Mike Moses. He leads a small combo composed of piano, bass and drums. Rounding out the team is choreographer Gary Hiel.

"The Fantasticks," notes Ross, "is one of the shows that truly makes you step back in your mind and think about your first love. I think it says you may have to give up your romantic ideas and settle for what life gives you, but you can still make the best of it."

Columbia Community Players will present "The Fantasticks" Fridays and Saturdays, May 4 through 19 at 8 p.m., in Slayton House (Wilde Lake Village Green, 410-637-5289), with a Sunday matinee on Mother's Day, May 13, at 3 p.m. Admission is $10 general, $9 for students and senior citizens.

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