The Year in Stage
There's no denying the pleasures of maximalist theater. A large-cast, elaborate-set production such as The School for Scandal and The Cripple of Innishmaan at Everyman Theatre, or Murder of Isaac and Radio Golf at Center Stage, can create a whole world that you can get lost in. And there are those who can't get enough of the Hippodrome (motto: "if the tourists can't come to New York, we'll bring New York to the tourists").
But minimalist theater can provide different pleasures, just as sharp and satisfying. Nothing proved that better than Baltimore's stages in 2006. Two of the year's three best productions and four of the Top 10 were bare-bones affairs--each consisted of two or three actors and little more than a few sticks of furniture for a set. Performance Workshop Theatre's Faith Healer, Run of the Mill Theatre's Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, Everyman Theatre's A Number, and Rep Stage's Stones in His Pockets all proved that you can create a whole world from the flimsiest of resources if the writing, staging, and acting are strong enough.
That's good news for the city's perennially struggling small theaters. Here is proof that you don't need the budget of Center Stage, or even of Everyman, to create exciting theater. In fact, Baltimore has the potential to become a center for minimalist theater. After all, it has much cheaper real estate than Washington or New York, and it has a John Waters-inspired aesthetic of off-the-street actors and cheap, homemade sets.
This year there were two signals that such a renaissance may be in the offing. Everyman (which provided two of our Top 10 shows) announced that it will be moving to a larger space on downtown's west side in 2009. Not only is this good for Everyman, which will be able to do more ambitious work for bigger audiences, but it also proves to other small companies that it is possible to start small here and grow into a professional company.
Run of the Mill (which provided two of our top four shows) seemed likely to shut down when its founder and dominating personality, Jim Knipple, decided to move to California for graduate school. That would be the usual story, but instead Knipple managed to turn over the reins to a new artistic director, Jenny Tibbels, and a new managing director, David Mitchell. The new team promptly cemented a working relationship with Theatre Project and launched an impressive South African Play Festival.
To have a great Baltimore theater scene, however, the city needs a great theater audience. City Paper reviews for both Faith Healer and Icarus mentioned that there were less than a dozen paying customers on each opening night, a not uncommon occurrence. Sure, there is a good deal of bad theater in town, but anyone who refused to venture beyond Center Stage, Everyman, the movies, or the couch missed Faith Healer and Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, two of the year's artistic highlights. (Geoffrey Himes)
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