The Year on Stage
Local stage talent might be the last untapped well of local greatness. Local music is already an annual international contender, visual artists are finally starting to get some attention outside of local group shows, and 2009 witnessed a rash of stage work take place in the city. From the fearless DIY productions by Annex Theatre, which toured its winning production of Beowolf, to the ongoing explosion of performance art and innovative stage productions cultivated and promoted by the Transmodern festival, Ric Royer's LOF/t, and the Theatre Project--in addition to the still-hanging-in-there community theaters and the few professional companies--an evening of stage in Baltimore is starting to offer a wide choices of ideas, personalities, playwrights, and performers.
CenterStage's production of Stephen Temperley's Souvenir succeeded because it wasn't everything musicals typically aren't at Baltimore's main professional stage: an intimate screwball comedy on a Spartan set where every gag--which were near constant--and emotional surprise arrives via the impeccable acting. Souvenir offered two consummate performers delivering a curveball story of friendship in this beguilingly hilarious tale of Florence Foster Jenkins (Judy Kaye), a 1930s Manhattan socialite who thought she could sing but, well, saying that she's awful would be kind. Her story and her voice--a truly unforgettable instrument--are remembered by her piano accompanist Cosme McMoon (Donald Corren), who guides you from laughing at Madame Flo to something very much like love for a woman who never let an utter lack of talent quash her dreams. (Bret McCabe)
Playwright Sarah Ruhl tries to give hell a Disneyland flair in her take on Sophocles, and there are a number of colorful updates that are inserted into this adventurously directed production. But what gives the Single Carrot Theatre production its immediacy is the love triangle that forms between a daughter, her fiancée, and her father. The performances of Giti Jabaily (Eurydice), Aldo Pantoja (Orpheus), and Brendan Ragan (as the dad) showcase a constantly shifting pattern of love and loss. You read the story in college, but the production's most effective scene--in which Euridyce's father takes his daughter down the aisle--gives this myth a delicacy and a clarity that will outlast the classroom translation. (John Barry)
Director Vincent Lancisi could have taken the usual approach to Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. He could have poked fun at the aristocratic Ranyevskaya Family, which does nothing to save the family estate it claims to love so much. Instead, Lancisi emphasized that love rather than the doing nothing, allowing Deborah Hazlett to retain her dignity in the face of impending disaster. The same unlikely dignity was granted to Megan Anderson as the bitter, pragmatic daughter Varya; to Craig Wallace as the unpolished, self-made businessman Lopakhin; and to Clinton Brandhagen as the naively idealistic student Trofimov. The result was a very different but very powerful approach to Chekhov, though it still culminated in a devastating final scene of packed luggage, clutching embraces, and sharpened axes. (Geoffrey Himes)
Maybe plays such as There Have Been Other Men in My Wife's Bed are best judged a year or so after they appear. As you look back at this Nine Imaginary Cows ensemble, you remember the Richard Foreman-influenced staging and the occasional auto-deconstruction of the theatrical conceit. But that's not why Tom Shade's play--written and directed by Shade and the ensemble, also including Temple Crocker, Stephanie Santer, and Ben King--still sticks in the mind. Simply stated, it's a touching, funny, and poetically tinted look at the uneasy relationship between marriage and art, with an honesty that gives this production a lasting appeal. (JB)
Director Tony Tsendeas' local production of David Davalos' hilarious Wittenberg got a spring workout at the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival before moving over to Rep Stage this past fall with the blithe cast in tow, including the comedic duo of Michael Stebbins as the constipated-by-doubt Martin Luther and the scene-stealing Seth Reichgott as Doctor John Faustus. Davalos dreams up a literary doozy--putting Hamlet (Michael Feldsher) at Wittenberg University at a time when both Christopher Marlowe's fictional creation and the actual church reformer were faculty members. Everything from Davalos' dialogue and Tsendeas' direction to the actors' on-point performances help this production pull off a comedic doozy: perfectly threading the needle between the outrageously loopy and disarmingly intelligent. (BM)
Charles Ludlam's 1984 two-hander is more than an acting stunt--it's an allusion-packed exercise in exploding theatrical conventions while kinda/sorta adhering to form in the process, and it's much, much harder than it looks. Yes, Bruce Nelson and Clinton Brandhagen have to bring to life the seven characters that populate this Victorian-era whodunit, but thanks to Ludlam's anarchic dialogue and Everett Quinton's blithe direction, the play fully blooms into its exploration of who-is-it and why-do-it, before settling into its resonating consideration of who-we-might-be. Plus: more laughs than a Sarah Palin interview--and they're intentional to boot. (BM)
Playing both Doug Wright, who penned I Am My Own Wife, and Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the play's title character, the brilliant Bruce Nelson used mind-boggling, switch-flipping transitions that highlighted the differences between the New York gay playwright and the real-life legendary transvestite who survived both the Nazis and the Stalinists "in high heels." But this performance wasn't a mere stunt like Nelson's turn in The Mystery of Irma Vep. In Wife, Nelson revealed how von Mahlsdorf's flamboyance hid as much as it revealed and, when Wright's hero worship finally cracked under the strain, how much the two men had in common. (GH)
The Performance Workshop Theatre production of Gilles Segal's The Puppetmaster of Lodz has become legendary in Maryland theater--with runs in 1995 in Baltimore County, 2002 in Anne Arundel County, and this year at the Theatre Project. The show deserves its legend, for Marc Horwitz, in the title role, once again convinced us that Samuel Finkelbaum really was one of the top puppeteers of mid-century Europe--masterfully manipulating Robert Smythe's handsome puppets. Horwitz also captured his character's madness, refusing to leave his apartment in 1950 Berlin because he was convinced the Nazis were still after him. It was never clear which would triumph--his artistry or his madness--and out of that uncertainty came a great evening of theater. (GH)
Precision and a sense of doomed inevitability haunt Henrik Ibsen's The Wild Duck. Those are two qualities that you might not immediately associate with the younger, contemporary-leaning Single Carrot Theatre ensemble, but under the low-profile direction of Buck Jabaily, it manages to latch on to the energy of misdirected desire without ever losing the rhythm of Ibsen himself. Filtered through the Norwegian playwright's disembodied language--often a stumbling point for many productions--SCT gave Ibsen a renewed vitality without losing their respect for the original. (JB)
Everyman Theatre's world premiere of Washington playwright David Emerson Toney's The Soul Collector took its audiences through some familiar tropes of African-American storytelling in this portrait of a pair of garbagemen, Cedric (Jefferson A. Russell) and his nephew Darnell (DeMargio House), in early-1970s Cleveland. What elevated the play from the familiar was a commanding performance by Erica Rose, whose spirit possessed neighbor Claire became a middle-aged Jewish entertainment agent one moment and a young Japanese girl before the bomb the next, which Rose magically pulled off with moving, full-body totality. (BM)
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