Monday, August 23, 2010

Down and Out at Fells Point Corner

You've been there a hundred times before. You are racing into the subway entrance. A homeless panhandler aggressively demands change. You briskly speed up, certain that the money would only go to drugs and that your taxes are supporting a flood of social services this aggressor should use.

In Scorpions, Mark Scharf's new play for the Baltimore Playwrights Festival, the scenario has suddenly changed. William, a prim office worker, discovers that Mattie, the homeless beggar staking out a Washington subway stop, is more than meets the eye. Intrigued by the witty, Dickens-citing panhandler, William puts Mattie up at his apartment, brings her to the company happy hour, and starts an affair that may be more than Platonic. A hateful coworker, Derek specializes in humiliating William through racial slurs on William's Asian background and destroys his colleague's quirky affair through an attempted seduction of Mattie.

Scharf's dialogue crackles through this play's combination of comedy and melodrama. The sharp witty passages soften the somber action and outcome of the play. The dramatic scenes, notably the attempted seduction of Mattie, bristle with brittle, humiliating conflict. The play occasionally lags, as in the dangling monologues and in the more pedantic musings on ethnicity. But it successfully avoids the stereotypes associated with this genre of theater and keeps both the offbeat comedy and the emotional conflict of the piece on track.

Despite a cumbersome set, which seems to have more furniture than the Ethan Allen showroom, director Miriam Bazensky briskly moves the action toward its bitter conclusion. Robin Rouse gives the standout performance as Mattie. Her sharp barbs and bravura gestures intensify the comic aura of the production; her breakdown after the humiliating encounter with Derek constitutes the performance's emotional apex.

Playing at the Fells Point Corner Theater, Scorpions offers a grim but entertaining glimpse of the relationship beyond dysfunctional.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Some Very Nice Things at Copeland

Ken Greller's This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things is an intriguing wisp of a play. Yes, it's yet another dysfunctional-relationship drama, but it admirably transcends the limits of that currently overused genre. Brilliantly directed by Peter Davis, the production features an ensemble of actors who convincingly bring this quirky meditation on romance and power to life. Produced by the Theatrical Mining Company, the drama is a new entrant in this year's Baltimore Playwrights Festival.

Currently playing at Notre Dame College's Copeland Theater, the play focuses on two troubled romantic relationships :one straight (Nathan and Suze), one gay (Ben and Tim). In the brief space of an hour, the couples experience desire, breakup, regret, and apology. In the witty dialogue by Greller, the perplexed romantic partners bounce (sometimes literally from the walls) in sharp, quirky dialogue and absurdist speculation on issues of power. The moralizing conclusion to the jaunty play is a bit of a downer, but the play's puzzles, explosions of emotion, and bemused characters keep the drama humming. Accenting the surreal note of the evening's actions, a statue molded by Nathan (which periodically becomes alive) becomes the play's ultimate object of erotic desire.

The direction of the play by Peter Davis is as close to flawless as one comes in BPF creations. The entire cast has clearly mastered its characters. Every actor manages to convey both the pathos and the offbeat humor of his or her character. There are no flubbed lines, lighting miscues, or wooden performances to mar the production. In this classy ensemble performance, two actors stand out: Christopher Krysztofiak as the perplexed Nathan, whose ever-shifting relationship to his paramour Suze, his friend Ben, and his enigmatic statue gives the play its fluid continuity. Just as impressive is Jessica Ruth Baker, who performs the roles of mother, employer, and mysterious statue. Her cool, crisp performance as the boss in the scenes where she fires Nathan constitutes the play's dramatic highlight. Her balletic performance as the statue underscores the lyrical but surreal atmosphere of the entire drama.

In Davis's capable hands, the ensemble delivers a performance which seems as much a ballet as a play. Each gesture, movement, and glance is carefully choreographed for maximum effect. The varied lighting design by Charlie Danforth provides strong visual support to the precise direction.

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things is a play for adults, not for children. It gives the dysfunctional-relationship genre a quirky, absurdist twist that saves it from cliche. The vibrant work of the director and ensemble cast will remind you why live theater is so special, indeed sacred, after all.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Hammarskjold: The Philosopher's Tale

A new production in this summer's Baltimore Playwrights Festival, Ron McKinney's Hammarskjold is a psychological mystery embroidered by philosophical debates. Premiering at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theater, the drama pivots around the puzzling identity of several mental patients and a baffling bomb attack at the United Nations. By the end of the performance, the threads of these disparate mysteries have been neatly tied together amidst a more abstract dispute on the difficulty of separating appearance from reality.

Set in a New York psychiatric hospital, Hammarskjold focuses on several therapists treating two problematic patients. An aggressive psychologist, Dr. Madison O'Reilly explores the enigma of a patient who believes himself to be Dag Hammarskjold, the secretary-general of the United Nations who died in the Congo uprising in 1961. Adding to the mystery is the fact that the patient knows in extraordinary detail the life of Hammarskjold; this knowledge seems to have been acquired by more than extensive reading or chance. A far quieter, self-doubting psychologist, Dr. Robbie Hanson attempts to unravel the sources of the rage of his Congolese Patient, Mputa. As they treat their patients, both therapists face their own internal conflicts as they undergo analysis by their own supervisors. A senior officer of the hospital, Dr. James Schmetterling supervises the investigation of these mysterious cases and carries on a tormented relationship with girlfriend Charlie Merleau, a security officer investigating the unsolved UN attack.

Unsurprisingly, the author of the drama is a philosopher and university professor. As the play comes to an unexpected (and poetically satisfying) resolution of its various mysteries, McKinney engages in speculations concerning history, sexuality, professional ethics, reincarnation, providence, fate, and discernment of the truth through psychoanalysis. On occasion, these excursions are moralizing and wearying. One might learn more than any human being would wish to know about Hammarskjold's biography and Congolese politics. But the satirical humor of the dialogue and the curiosity concerning the outcome of these various puzzles prevent the drama from stalling.

Lynne Morton's austere direction of the play maintains its therapeutic and rather abstract atmosphere. The characters pursue their detective work, their conflicts, and their romantic interests as participants in a therapeutic session on which the audience eavesdrops. Only emotion and argument remain. The therapists and security guard cling to their ringside places; the enraged patients are frozen in the outer ring of the performance space. Ably assisting this stark rendition of the script is the minimalist set design by Carrie Fucile. A diaphanous set of wires enclose the stage as if the audience is viewing the imprisonment or masking of the mind during the play's debates and discoveries. The two patients vent their rage from a blank white distance. Only in the play's transcendent ending does the ecstatic Charlie break the emotional paralysis and the physical stasis in which the other characters are enclosed.

The quality of acting varies. Andrea Bush gives a bravura performance as the bisexual Charlie. From beginning to end, her presence, diction, and emotional verve dominate the stage. Bob Ahrens (the Hammarskjold patient) and Kevin Baker (Mputa) plumb the emotional depths of their anguished characters. Kerry Brady (Madison) captures the aggressive bounce of her character; the performances of Ron Decker (James) and Jeffrey Coleman (Robbie) seem more tentative.

With its complex action, speculative dialogue, and austere production, Hammarskjold provides a challenging exercise in philosophical drama.