The Year on Stage
First, the good news. Everyman’s 2005 season offered a series of intense, risky plays—in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, the main characters spent most of their time in bed; in Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, they spent most of their time chained together. Erik Ehn brought a little seriously progressive theater to the area this spring with 13 Christs—and although the Run of the Mill Theater didn’t attract crowds, at least it attracted a cutting-edge playwright. Center Stage went for broke with a ballsy version of King Lear. Of course, with Shakespeare, everyone’s a critic, and though some thought it had its flaws, others—such as this writer—considered it impressive, thoughtful, and well done. The Voysey Inheritance, however, impressed everyone—and Irene Lewis deserves credit for resurrecting that one. The Baltimore Playwrights Festival didn’t surprise, but it didn’t disappoint either. And Fells Point Corner Theatre came through with a spectacular House of Blue Leaves. Last but not least, The Violet Hour at the Rep Stage was a season highlight.
A few new actors to watch out for: Josh Davis from Last Five Years, Dahlia Kaminsky from Variations on Desire, and Patrick Martyn from House of Blue Leaves all appear to be headed somewhere, probably beyond the Beltway. Baltimore isn’t a magnet for opera companies, but Ignoti Dei Opera, full of Peabody graduates, showed that it has an agenda, youth, and talent. A larger, younger audience shouldn’t be much to ask for—but it probably is.
In the playwriting department, Jeff Cohen’s Men of Clay wasn’t in any contests and didn’t get much advance publicity, but his work-in-progress—which included a read-through at the Creative Alliance—offered a breezy, witty look at Baltimore’s old Druid Hill Park neighborhood.
The bad news? Lack of talent is never going to sink Baltimore theater, but lack of space is a problem. Theatre Hopkins, after 50 years on campus, is looking for a new home to accommodate its dedicated cast. Run of the Mill, meanwhile, is also looking for new digs. Having outgrown its old space, Everyman is looking everywhere. And pro writers like Cohen, who are actually writing plays about Baltimore, have a damn hard time finding places to perform them. (John Barry)
1 King Lear, Center Stage
Center Stage’s fascinating production of King Lear didn’t leave us with a main character raving against the dying of the light—instead it crawled with cockroaches. Along with the bleating of a poor man’s orchestra and the intentional collapse of the stage, this bareboned production did just enough to make the audience uncomfortable. And that is what Lear should do. (JB)
2 Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, Everyman Theatre
It wasn’t the nudity and sex that made this the most exciting production of the year, but rather that the nudity and sex felt like no big deal in a disarmingly naturalistic show. When a waitress and a cook, both in their 40s, wind up in bed after a first date, she wants to shrug it off, but he wants to turn it into the beginning of a grand romance. Playwright Terrence McNally milks a good deal of humor from the situation, but he also gets at the twin fears of wanting too much or too little from a new relationship. The two-actor production at Everyman, directed by Vincent Lancisi and featuring terrific performances by Deborah Hazlett and Zachary Knower, proved far more vivid than the movie version. (Geoffrey Himes)
3 The Violet Hour, Rep Stage
Rep Stage’s The Violet Hour struck gold with a beautiful play about a miserable writer. This energetic production offered a peek into the world of flappers and Zelda Fitzgerald, but it also offered a few well-aimed barbs at our own somewhat inflated sense of self-consciousness. (JB)
4 The Marriage of Figaro, Lyric Opera House
Many opera stars resemble statues onstage, but bass singer Robert Gierlach was so full of restless energy as Figaro that he reminded us that the libretto of an opera can be as important as the music, if only someone pays attention to it. Gierlach did, and so did director Bernard Uzan, soprano Korliss Uecker, and soprano Susan Patterson. As Figaro and his girlfriend (Uecker) plot to trick the lecherous Count, and as the Countess (Patterson) bewails his infidelity, the comic shenanigans and romantic melancholy never get in the way of the gorgeous, unfussy music, but actually enhance it. The result was one of the Baltimore Opera Company’s rare triumphs. (GH)
5 Yellowman, Everyman Theatre
In its Balkanized vision of the South, Yellowman offered intensity, humor, and anger in one package. Without missing a beat, Dawn Ursula and Paul Nicholas managed to take us to the Deep South and beyond—offering us a look at the dimensions and depths of racial identity. (JB)
6 Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, Everyman Theatre
An Englishman wakes up in a Beirut basement to find his ankle attached to a long rusty chain attached to a pillar; nearby are an Irishman and an American in similar predicaments. We never see the captors, who become Godot-like abstractions, and the three prisoners are left waiting, waiting for an explanation that never comes. The Irishman, like the gay prisoner in Kiss of the Spiderwoman, plunges into fantasy at every chance; the Yank builds his resistance around harsh but ultimately fragile self-discipline; and the Brit is simply overwhelmed by it all. The superb three-man cast, the design team, and director Juanita Rockwell made the show to work both as a realistic prison drama and as an abstract allegory, which is a pretty neat trick. (GH)
7 House of Blue Leaves, Fells Point Corner Theatre
When it comes to production values, Steve Goldklang’s direction of House of Blue Leaves set the standard for community theater. The dysfunctional family is an old story, but FPCT gave it new life with sharp dialogue, compact blocking, and good acting. The fact that it did it on a tiny stage with a limited budget made it even more impressive. (JB)
8 The Turn of the Screw, Fells Point Corner Theatre
Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw has always been a prime candidate for theatrical dumbing down. It’s got ghosts, a scary mansion, and a simple plot. This version was challenging, fascinating, and frustrating—and well worth the $12, especially for the City That Reads’ large contingent of Henry James fans. OK, it didn’t pack ’em in, but it should have. (JB)
9 Variations on Desire, Run of the Mill Theater
With 10 plays, five actors, and four directions, Variations on Desire added a little spark to the dog days of summer. According to artistic director James Knipple, the whole project started with a party, where Run of the Mill assembled a group of local directors, playwrights, and actors to brainstorm ideas. With a little healthy competition, 10 local playwrights came up with 10 quirky, thoughtful sketches, all playing successfully on romance. (JB)
10 Kimberly Akimbo, Rep Stage
With Kimberly Akimbo, Rep Stage also dove into the dysfunction/degenerative genre with a story about a young woman who ages fast. Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s sharp ear and quick wit is familiar to anyone who has checked out Fuddy Meers. Rep Stage, meanwhile, took on the challenge of packing this chaotic and sometimes brilliant mix of people and diseases into a coherent and enjoyable play. (JB)
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