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Plucky 13

"Brash," "Unafraid" Theater Comes to . . . Hamilton

Christopher Myers
Mission 13: The 10-strong players of Company Thirteen aim to become for theater what the Ottobar is for rock.

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 1/29/2003

Three flights above Harford Road in downtown Hamilton, catty-corner to a pawn shop, a pair of twentysomething guys are pounding beers and smoking weed. Vince and John, pals since high school, have been apart for years and have a lot of catching up to do. But there's an undercurrent of unresolved competition to the backslapping buddy talk. And the tension takes an overt--and violent--turn when Vince accuses John of having date-raped his ex-girlfriend. The heat increases when a horrid confession is clandestinely caught on tape.

No, Baltimore's finest won't soon be kicking in their door. What's transpiring is Company Thirteen's production of Stephen Belber's play (and later, film) Tape. It's the 2-year-old theater group's debut show in its new permanent venue, the rambling third story of a creaky Hamilton commercial building. They call the space, appropriately enough, the Top Floor. Black-box theater in the front half, open lounge space in the rear, the venue was first occupied by Company 13 last summer, which was followed by the months of painting and cleaning that was necessary before Tape's debut.

"It was pretty hurt-up," company member Bill Yarbrough, 27, says of his group's new niche within the brick walk-up at 5440 Harford Road. "The guy before us sort of rolled out on his lease, so all his stuff was still here."

Tape is only the third production for the nonprofit Company Thirteen, a youthful (read: no one over 30) and formerly itinerant assemblage consisting largely of Towson University theater majors. But the company--down to 10 members from the original namesake 13--has ambitious plans now that they have a self-styled home. Growing the audience for live theater among their own twentysomething set is perhaps goal No. 1.

"We want to bring people in that might ordinarily not want to go to a show," Yarbrough says. "It's cheaper than a movie, and you can come sit on a lounge chair or a couch. We want them to think, This is cool."

Center Stage it isn't. Indeed, you could mistake the Top Floor's seating area for the furniture department at the local Goodwill. A hodgepodge of used armchairs, love seats, and sofas encircle the small stage, with room for about 40 people. As another informal touch, the theater has a BYOB policy, and while a permanent liquor license is a long-range (and very costly) goal, the company can acquire one-day, temporary licenses to sell beer and wine.

But creating an alternative venue is one thing, getting theatrical neophyte twentysomethings through the door--or in this case, up three flights of stairs--means presenting something they want to see. Or think they might. Belber's Tape was a costume fit for the intimate venue: It features the target demographic, requires only one set, and requires but three actors. Yarbrough says they put the set together for less than $200; the only Tape downside was the royalty fees, which run $60 a performance. But where to go next?

"We want to start telling our stories in our own words," says company member and Tape director Richard Fawley, 22. "That's how I think we'll start getting our generation interested."

For Fawley, this means staging a lot of original works. In February, the company rolls with The Twenty Four Experiment, a theatrical stunt wherein up to 40 artists are thrown together with the goal of creating six 15-minute plays in 24 hours; the fruits of their efforts will be staged Feb. 22. Then in March, they open The New America, a one-man show--diatribe?--written and performed by company member Paul Diem.

Company promotional materials use words like "brash" and "unafraid" to describe their work. But then, it's hard to see how these terms fit with the dog-eared drama Twelve Angry Men, which the company launches in April. But Yarbrough, who is directing the Reginald Rose standard, says he plans to cast the show dramatically downward in age as a means to unleash a new perspective on the classic.

Diem--who played John in Tape--is also in charge of marketing and promoting the company. "I'm going at it like they market the punk-rock scene, because that's what I'm familiar with," he says.

This largely translates into printing up a lot of fliers, which company members distribute from Fells Point to the Ottobar. Or, as one company member described it, they hit "the artier sections of town."

Fawley feels that after college, some people get tired of clubbing and bar-hopping, and he hopes to position the Top Floor as a viable new option. "We have the same kind of kids, the same kind of atmosphere, but it's something completely different," he says. "Once we start getting people up here, the word will spread."

Ah, but then there's one final rub: Hamilton. The Top Floor resides in the heart of sleepy Northeast Baltimore. The rent is cheap and parking isn't a problem, but can the company lure bored/curious bohos up here from the "artier" sections of town?

"Well," Fawley says. "That's the challenge."

Tape runs through Feb. 1. Call (443) 691-7040 or see www.thetopfloor.org for more information.

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