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Bats and Fleas Are Good for Plays The Flea uses its acting troupe to support bold work

By MARK PEIKERT

Even if they loved it, most theatre companies couldn't produce Thomas Bradshaw's play Job.

A darkly comic riff on Biblical history, the show imagines a bet between Satan and God that Job can be forced to blaspheme. As with most of Bradshaw's plays, which include Burning and The Bereaved, this witty set-up leads to provocative results that practically demand a reaction from the audience.

That's catnip to the edgy companies that produce Bradshaw's work, so content is not the problem with Job. The problem is that it has 18 characters, which means hiring more actors than most small theatres can afford.

The Flea, however, is making the leap. Running through October 7, Job opens their latest season with its sprawling cast intact.

For producing director Carol Ostrow, it's essential to let writers think big. "We're saying don't write a two-hander," she says. "If there's a play in your head with 32 characters, write that play and send that to us."

The Flea can afford a large cast because of The Bats, their ensemble of up-and-coming young actors who not only perform in shows, but also pitch in around the theatre in countless other capacities. The Bats are unpaid---the most affordable salary of all---but rising actors flock to the troupe every year because of the experience it provides.

The 2012-2013 season, for instance, is bursting with luminaries. Job runs in rep with Heresy, the latest play from A. R. Gurney, and in the spring, the Flea will mount commissioned works from the actor Hamish Linklater and the playwright Beau Wililimon, with the latter directed by lauded film director Joel Schumacher.

The Bats will be exposed to all these productions, not to mention the other plays, multimedia projects, and one-off events that will populate the space.

But this isn't just a good opportunity for the Bats. The program also gives writers the chance to work with young artists who are willing to push themselves and who represent a large cross-section of the city's talent pool.

To that end, the Bats must go through a careful audition process, and Ostrow says there's a strong commitment to diversity in casting. This also supports an effort to reach more diverse audiences. "When you take the subway car, it's really a cornucopia of all sorts of ages, races, professions, vocations," she adds. "That's what we want our theatre audience to look like."

For Bradshaw, the large pool of Bat actors is particularly enticing. "There are very few places where you can have a cast of 20 people without a whole lot of hemming and hawing from the artistic team at the theatre," he says. "You could double cast Job, but it's more fun if you don't."

He also cites the company's openness to risky material. "I think that Jim [Simpson, the artistic director] and Carol are very fearless in their programming," he says. "They're not gonna shy away from dangerous or challenging material." 

Asked how the Flea balances the work in its packed season, Ostrow says, "It's a little bit like planning a feast---finding the kind of things we really think would be interesting to our audience and our company."

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Mark Peikert is the New York bureau chief of Back Stage