Charm City Dreams Strips Comedy to the Bare Essentials
Welcome to Charm City Dreams, a bawdy late-night comedy/soap-opera spoof staged every Saturday at the Spotlighters Theatre in Mount Vernon. It isn't like any other show in town--or perhaps any other show in any other town, for that matter.
The story churns around Molly Flynn (played by Cheryl Skafte), a young and somewhat naive aspiring actress who comes fresh from the small-town Midwest to join the motley cast and crew of the 4 Post Theatre, a small, struggling venue not unlike the Spotlighters itself. Flynn finds herself at odds with the theater's emphasis on sexualized productions (the 4 Post's motto is "Where nudity meets art, and nudity wins") and yet drawn to the "cutting edge" aspects of owner Harold Schwepski (Rodney Bonds) and his unorthodox productions (ever heard of Fiddling on the Roof?).
Molly is befriended by local theater diva Victoria Van Dyne (Patricia Penn), who reigns over the 4 Post with her perfect breasts and singing "woo-woo of wonder," and by a host of other characters, including Victoria's illustrious boyfriend Marcus Sumner (Bill Hardy) and the theater's hermaphroditic janitor, "Billy" (Ian Bonds).
One imagines the 4 Post resembling the Spotlighters in every way--situated off an easy-to-miss alley (in the Spotlighters' case, off St. Paul Street), dark and comfortable with old, mismatched faux-Victorian furniture and Oriental rugs. The total-immersion effect is accentuated by the fact that the Spotlighters is a theater-in-the-round; during the show, the actors roam in and out, through and around the audience.
"I like the idea [that] as soon as you walk into the lobby of a theater, the show has begun," says Charm City's writer and director, Gregory Hall, a burly, bearded guy in a baseball cap and a colorful polo shirt. "I always thank [Spotlighters owner] Bob [Russell] for building the exact set that I need."
A Baltimorean by birth, Hall lived in Detroit for five years, where he worked in local television and did stand-up comedy. It was in Detroit that he created The Early Monday Morning Show, an interactive improv performance.
After a few years in Orlando, Hall returned to Baltimore, joining up with Spotlighters in June 2001 and becoming the theater's creative director last September. After talking it over with Russell, he developed the idea of Charm City, melding his TV and comedy experience to live theater.
"I think [Charm City Dreams] came from my frustration that I had access to theater space and no access to camera equipment," he says. On the other hand, he notes, not being able to film "cuts down the editing."
There certainly doesn't seem to be much editing going on, at least not for racy content. Since Charm City premiered last October, each weekly installment has offered a constant succession of sexual humor and nudity, all treated in a comedic fashion. Stick around Charm City long enough and eventually you'll witness just about every unclothed body part and sexual innuendo imaginable onstage. Think Three's Company bumped up a few notches and running on Cinemax.
That it's all done for a punch line makes the parade of flesh seem less gratuitous. "Let's face it, a human body might not be funny, but being naked is," Hardy says. "We do the 'steamy stuff' with our clothes on."
Skafte agrees. "I think that the nudity adds to the show, not detracts or distracts," she says, "like Molly pulling down Marcus' pants in a daydream--the audience cracked up."
Hall says much of the impetus for the show's prurient subject matter comes from theater owner Russell, a big fan of the HBO hit Sex and the City. "In those shows, it's about sex," Hall says. "Sex, nudity, adult themes . . . from a marketing standpoint, sex sells."
If the nudity makes Charm City stand out in the local theatrical scene, it also limits it for some theatergoers. In a review shortly after last fall's opening, Sun critic J. Wynn Rousuck turned up her nose at the serial, referring to it as the Spotlighters season's "weakest link." Noting the show's dependence on sex--Penn's Victoria Van Dyne "bar[ing] her breasts in the first few minutes" of the premiere episode, an actor simulating masturbation later in the show--Rousuck wrote, "This is the kind of material that makes [really bad plays] look good."
Hall shrugs off such criticism. "Anytime you do something controversial or cutting edge, you're going to tick off somebody," he says. And while he acknowledges enjoying the the "shock element" of Charm City's lubricity, he adds, "They do nude on Broadway and Vegas--I'm not breaking new ground here."
Rather, he says, "it's the show concept and the writing that makes it so different. [Most theater productions] go up and you run the same damn thing every weekend for a month and a half. . . . It's always the same point-a-to-point-b story. We never see what happens to Anne Frank the next day." Charm City, he says, "lets you come back week after week to follow the lives of your favorite characters. It hooks the audience and makes them feel like they actually know these people on stage.
"I get people coming up to me or e-mailing all the time, asking, 'What's going to happen to Molly? Are Victoria and Marcus really going to break up?' They talk about these characters as if they're real people. That is the mark of a successful show to me."
Hall also raises the stakes for the audience through the audience interaction. For instance, in the most recent episode, Marcus proposed to Victoria; before she could answer, Hall ended the show and asked the audience to vote on whether or not she should accept.
The Spotlighters does very little advertising for Charm City Dreams--"It's just very difficult to explain in two lines something that no one's ever heard of before," Hall says. The show relies on word of mouth to bring in an audience, a strategy that has not always proven effective over the production's season-long run. After debuting the first few episodes to anemic houses last October, Charm City took an extended holiday break and restarted the show from the beginning in January. (The show recently shed a weekly Friday night performance.) The cast also dwindled along the way, with a few of the original members departing, but Hall is enthusiastic about their replacements: "Molly and Victoria are just better than I've ever dreamed, and it took us a while but we finally found the Marcus that we needed."
With its unpaid actors and a minimum of rehearsal time (the cast does only three run-throughs prior to each episode, which runs for three consecutive weekends), Charm City Dreams is fast-paced and raw, but the actors bring bring a larger-than-life vitality to their parts. A few of them (Ian Bonds, Belle Gaskin, and Miranda Kosten) also appear in the The Early Monday Morning Show, Baltimore version of the improv show Hall did in Detroit, which precedes each episode of Charm City. The two shows now attract about 30 audience members per night--"not bad for no advertising and an 11 p.m. time slot," Hall maintains.
The current episode runs through April 27, and then the season finale will run for the first three weekends of May. After that, he says, the theater will make a decision on whether to renew Charm City. He's not waiting for an answer: He says he's already started writing next season's opener. In the meantime, he's sanguine about Charm City's struggles, and its place in the theatrical world.
"This is never going to be Broadway, but it'll always be here," he says of the show's Baltimore home base. "Besides," he adds, smiling, "nobody wants to see a soap opera about a successful theater."
The Early Monday Morning Show and Charm City Dreams play every Saturday night through May 18 at 11 p.m. at the Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD 21202. For more information call (410) 752-1225 or visit www.spotlighters.org.
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