What a great time it is for theater in Greater Cincinnati. I know. That sounds like I’m cheerleading for theater. But it’s no exaggeration. Not only are there a lot of shows to choose from, but, because so many of them are of high quality, choosing what to see is harder than ever.

Oh, there were times in the past when there were more touring shows that rolled through town. And there were a few celebrity-filled shows performed in big tents, too. 

But it’s the exceptionally broad range of theater available today that makes things so very different.

For those of you looking for community theaters, there are dozens of them that produce throughout the year. (You can find an up-to-date list of them and their schedules at behindthecurtaincincy.com.)

For me, though, what is most impressive is the abundance of professional or semi-professional theaters in Greater Cincinnati.

You probably know some of them, places like the Playhouse in the Park and Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati and the touring shows brought to the Aronoff Center by Broadway in Cincinnati.

Then there is that next rung of theaters. They’re professional, but they’re smaller operations, places like Know Theatre of Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company and the Warsaw Federal Incline Theatre.

Finally, there are all those other theaters. In some ways, they’re the most intriguing of the bunch. They have no marketing budgets, so unless you’re following them on Facebook or Twitter, you may not have heard of them. They’re that small. But if you’re interested in smart and thoughtful theater, they might be worth taking a look. Last year, these theaters played host to some of the area’s finest productions.

Two of my favorites are the Falcon Theatre in Newport and the Clifton Performance Space in, as the name suggests, Clifton. Unlike the Playhouse, with its magnificent hilltop setting in Eden Park, these two have locations you could easily drive past without a second glance.

Clifton Performance Theatre is located at 404 Ludlow Ave., between Middleton and Whitfield avenues. It’s in a basement space in the Tudor Court apartments. If you’re a longtime Cincinnatian, you may remember it as the home of Sitwell’s Coffee House, which relocated down Ludlow to a spot next to the Esquire Theatre. If you’ve been around even longer, you may remember it as a quiet little neighborhood bar called The Cove.

Clifton Performance Theatre has lots of things going against it. It’s very small. An audience of 50 constitutes a near-capacity crowd. There are posts that can block your view, too. And the seats are not the most comfortable.

But with many of CPT’s shows, you quickly forget the seats. And the posts. This is an artist-driven company and the theater you see there is challenging and smart and heartfelt. And, every so often, it’s downright extraordinary, as it was with last February’s production of August: Osage County.

“The original intention was to set up an artistic home and ‘blank canvas’ for artists to try things that they might not be able to do elsewhere,” says Carol Brammer, CPT’s founder. “I wanted a place where professional adult actors could have some control over their work.”

As a result, CPT has a roster of actors that includes some of the area’s best-known performers, including Cathy Springfield, Kevin Crowley, Dale Hodges, Reggie Willis, Christine Dye and others.

As a bonus, Brammer launched a full program of theater education for young people, as well, working with local musicians to create original productions for the students.

In Brammer’s eyes, these two undertakings are not unexpected at all. Indeed, she says, they are perfect complements to one another.

“They feed one another—inspirationally, artistically and in their optimism,” says Brammer.

CPT’s next production is Realistic Joneses. It runs Jan. 21–Feb. 7. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased by calling 513-861-7469 or online at cliftonperformancetheatre.com.

Falcon Theatre, with a capacity of roughly 75, is a teeny bit larger. Located in a storefront on a busy commercial stretch of Monmouth Street in Newport, it is in a row of shops that include a pawn shop, a costume shop and a mom-and-pop Mexican restaurant.

The company was founded on Cincinnati’s West Side in 1989, but a dozen years ago they found the space in Newport.

“We hadn’t been looking to move to Newport,” says Ted Weil, artistic director and co-founder. “We knew it was a little bit of a risk. But honestly, we didn’t really have much of a West Side crowd. We figured we’d lose a few, but we’d gain a few new people, too.”

For their first show, they performed Gilligan’s Island, the Musical. They’d done it before and made a killing with it, so Weil was confident this new audience would love it, too.

“We did great,” recalls Weil. “We figured fabulous—everyone had followed us to Newport. Then for the next two years, it seemed like we couldn’t sell a ticket.”

As they struggled to rebuild the audience, they did a lot of soul-searching. In retrospect, they realized they had developed into a theater that was much more attentive and more in tune with its audience.

The result is a theater that offers highly eclectic seasons, but always leaves enough room in the schedule to accommodate shows that, for one reason or another, haven’t found homes elsewhere.

“We used to be the edgy theater in town,” says Weil. “The theater that would do stuff nobody else would do. But today, we find more of a balance. We still do those edgy shows. But we do lots of other things, too.”

So this season began with a musical parody of Silence of the Lambs. There was no blood, no gore. But it was hilarious and filled with surprisingly coarse lyrics. The audience wasn’t gigantic. But those who were there were enthusiastic. Next up is a show that is far more mainstream, Craig Lucas’ Tony Award-nominated 1988 play, Prelude to a Kiss.

In between, the company hosted a couple of its so-called Fourth Wall productions. Those are the ones that are smaller and quirkier but deserve to be seen.

Mockingbird, a show about an autistic 11-year-old girl, was staged in December and went on to become one of the Enquirer’s best-theater picks. And in January, they hosted a short run of She’s Crazy, described as an “interactive Cabaret reducing the stigma of mental illness with music and humor.” It played briefly last year at the Clifton Performance Theatre.

“We think that having a balance is a way to keep our audiences coming back,” says Weil. “It’s also a way to keep artists happy. I know that having such a wide variety makes us hard to define. And that can be the death of a company. But we’ve been around for a while. And I think people understand now that the only way to describe our niche is that we do good stuff.”

Prelude to a Kiss runs Jan. 29-Feb. 13 at the Falcon Theatre, 636 Monmouth St., Newport. Tickets are $20 and are available by calling 513-479-6783 or online at falcontheater.net.