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The Year in Stage

Erika Lavonn In Center Stage's Things of Dry Hours

Top Ten 2007

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Posted 12/12/2007

When theaters are as small and underfunded as Baltimore's have usually been, the easy thing is to do small-cast dramas and comedies set in contemporary or recent America or England. There's nothing wrong with that, for it often leads to terrific work-as this year's productions of Sight Unseen at the Everyman Theatre and Two by Pinter at Rep Stage attest. But such chamber shows are only a slice of what the stage can provide, and a healthy theater scene needs to offer a broader range of experiences: Shakespeare, foreign plays, costume dramas, musicals, experimental work, and more.

The ambitions of Baltimore's smaller theaters were ratcheted up in 2007, stretching their capacities to stage the kind of shows that had been previously left to Center Stage alone. Such efforts weren't always successful, but they had a high enough batting average to offer hope for the future. Ambition must precede achievement, and healthy ambition could be seen everywhere.

The Everyman mounted its first-ever Shakespeare production, Much Ado About Nothing, and the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival continued to upgrade its production values in this year's All's Well That Ends Well. The Spotlighters Theatre staged the edgy Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins; the UMBC Theatre mounted Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's sprawling musical The Threepenny Opera, and the True Comedy Theatre Company incorporated an original rock score into its production of Vaclav Havel's The Increased Difficulty of Concentration at Theatre Project.

The Brecht and Havel shows were a welcome indication that local theaters were willing to wrestle with translated plays and/or works that require foreign accents and period costumes. Thus Rep Stage was willing to set Itamar Moses' Bach in Leipzig in 18th-century Germany, the Performance Workshop Theatre to set two Brecht one-acts in 1930s Germany, and the Run of the Mill Theater to set Federico García Lorca's Blood Wedding in 1930s Spain, complete with flamenco music and dancing. Naomi Wallace's Things of Dry Hours was set in 1930s Birmingham, Ala., at Center Stage, while C.P. Taylor's And a Nightingale Sang was set in 1940s Manchester, England, at Everyman, and both required local, working-class accents and attitudes to work.

Trying productions outside your comfort zone can be a funny thing. Total triumphs are rare, and confidence-shattering fiascos are a real danger. But in their attempts at classics, musicals, and foreign works, Baltimore's theaters created the kind of modest successes that build confidence and develop a taste for even more ambitious risk-taking. The best is yet to come, but 2007 may be remembered as the year that Baltimore's theaters stopped being satisfied with two couples tossing psychological barbs at each other in a modern American living room and began to assemble large casts that could speak in Elizabethan iambic pentameter, sing Sondheim melodies, and dance to a flamenco beat. (Geoffrey Himes)

1 The Increased Difficulty Of Concentration (Theatre Project)
Vaclav Havel's 1968 play The Increased Difficulty of Concentration was first produced in the Prague Spring as cracks formed in the Communist Party. The thaw ended, and much has happened since, but, as the New York-based True Comedy Theatre Company has shown, the play remains remarkably fresh. A sharp cast and a wild plot-within-a-plot all have been fine-tuned to ADD sensibilities. Two and a half hours fly by in this production, leaving you asking for more. Brad Holbrook gave an excellent performance as Hummel, the beleaguered social scientist, who is trying to juggle his secretary, his wife, his mistress, and, finally, a poorly constructed artificial-intelligence machine called Puzak. Along with an excellent new translation (from Stepan Simek) and recorded music by the Mendoza Line, this is a welcome addition to the recent Havel revival in celebration of the playwright/ex-president's 70th birthday. (John Barry)

2 Two by Pinter: "The Collection" and "The Lover" (Rep Stage)
When people think of Harold Pinter, they usually think of the menacing darkness of his pauses, but director Xerxes Mehta reminded us just how funny the Nobel-winning playwright can be if given a chance. There was something aggressive about the bedroom games played by "The Lover" and his mistress, but something absurdly ridiculous, too, just as the dire threats made by the jealous husband in "The Collection" edged into an unlikely flirtation with the alleged lover. Mehta also directed two memorable productions at UMBC: The Threepenny Opera and Silence, Cunning, Exile, Stuart Greenman's docudrama about Diane Arbus. (GH)

3 Bach at Leipzig (Rep Stage)
It's one thing to tell people you're not a genius, and another thing entirely to figure out why you're not. In Rep Stage's production of Itamar Moses' comedy Bach at Leipzig, six capable composers go through the rough gauntlet as they vie for a coveted vacancy as organist for Thomaskirche. Unfortunately for them, it's 1722. Somewhere in the background is the inimitable Johann Sebastian Bach, who, little doubt, will win in the end. But a little like Django Reinhardt in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown, he remains offstage, an invisible but irresistible force. The six struggling Salieris are left fighting between themselves for a title that will, ultimately, go to another. Playwright Moses is more interested in their losing battles for recognition than in the transcendent Bach, which lends this play its comic and brilliant charm. (JB)

4 Things of Dry Hours (Center Stage)
Tice Hogan, the black Alabama steelworker who preaches both at the local Sunday school and at communist rallies, is one of the most fascinating characters invented for the stage in recent years. As brought to life by the charismatic Roger Robinson at Center Stage, Tice proved funny and furious, earthy and articulate, open and wary-and irresistibly watchable. Coping with a daughter scarred by romance and racism and with a stranger who might have been a company spy or a potential recruit, Tice upended every stereotype about American communists that pop culture has ever given us. (GH)

5 Siddown (Theatre Project)
As Gregory and Abigail Maupin of Le Petomane Theatre Ensemble make clear in Siddown, much can happen when nothing goes quite right. Their two characters-a husband/wife duo-get a small bag of tricks, a few old jokes, a small space, and maybe 30 or 40 people watching. Most refreshingly, they have their own time zone. Before the show begins, audience members are told to move from the upper reaches of Theatre Project's auditorium onto the stage itself, where a few rows of seats have been set up. Once onstage, it becomes clear that the intimacy in this case isn't an affectation. The Maupins give 75 minutes, with no strings attached, and by the end of this funny, fascinating series of routines, two living characters emerge. Without making it sound like too much of a big deal, Le Petomane Ensemble reminds us that that's what the stage is for. (JB)

6 Sight Unseen (Everyman Theatre)
On the surface, this was a satire on the absurdities of the modern art world-and delivered several good jokes in that vein-but it was more interesting as a tense romantic triangle featuring a famous artist, his ex-girlfriend, and her current husband. No matter how successful or sophisticated you become, we learn, you never get over your first heartbreak. At the triangle's fulcrum, Everyman resident actress Deborah Hazlett provided the same vulnerability and temper that she brought to her terrific performances in Much Ado About Nothing and Pinter's Betrayal. (GH)

7 Assassins (Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre)
Thanks to a strong ensemble performance, all the anti-heroes in Sondheim's Assassins stepped up to the plate in this production. What's really striking is that many of those characters are icons, without political affiliations, who are doing what all Americans are supposed to do: make a name for themselves. Thanks to a closely knit cast, this production gave them all names and faces. It doesn't advocate following suit, but, in a cheerfully and darkly humored way, Assassins offered a chance to slip into their shoes for a moment. When, at the end, Sondheim offers us the view of the world from inside Dallas' Texas School Book Depository window, he reminds us that in a country where people are expected to define themselves as winners, the losers grow increasingly interesting. (JB)

8 "The Jewish Wife" and "The Informer" (Performance Workshop Theatre)
These two early Brecht one-acts both depicted the reluctance of Germans in the 1930s to admit how real the looming threat really was. Both the bourgeois Jewish socialite in the first play and the Lutheran schoolmaster in the second expressed their fears of the coming fascism in evasions, denials, and sideways hints. The unspoken themes resonated more powerfully than usual in the cramped basement of the 24-seat Performance Workshop Theatre, where we could examine each nervous glance, each faltering voice. (GH)

9 Blood Wedding (Run of the Mill Theater)
Despite the personnel turnover-or possibly because of it-Run of the Mill, now into its fourth season, is keeping its eye on its mission of defying expectations. Its latest production, Federico García Lorca's 1933 masterpiece Blood Wedding, challenged you without alienating you. And this production took this Andalusian tragedy and plopped it, flamenco dancing included, in the middle of Baltimore without a hint of awkwardness or fetishism. The stage was relatively bare-with the exception of a few well-placed props-but that only accentuated the work of costume designer Laura Ridgeway and director David D. Mitchell. They had a great deal to contend with: García Lorca isn't just a storyteller and dramatist, but also a poet who was generally concerned with breaking down barriers between genres. This no-holds-barred plunge into a whirlpool of lust, passion, and marriage was truly one of the year's standout performances. (JB)

10 Help Wanted (Center Stage)
Josh Lefkowitz, just 25 last January when he brought his one-man show to Center Stage, wants to be a monologist like the late Spalding Gray, but he's also smart enough to realize that a twentysomething kid could never be another Gray. Lefkowitz made his hero worship and disillusionment the subject of his witty, jittery, youthful 70-minute monologue. Lefkowitz brings his new one-man show Now What? to Center Stage in January. (GH)

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