The macho image of the heroic Western cowboy is shot down in "The Best Western," a new satirical fantasy by local playwright Matthew Ramsay. Opening tonight, this episodic saga with a cast of 24 is being performed outdoors by the Bowman Ensemble at the Child's Memorial on the grounds of McDonogh School in Owings Mills.
The non-profit company is in its second season of repertory theater. In residence at McDonogh School, the Bowman Ensemble is also presenting Carlo Goldoni's 18th century comedy, "The Fan" with a new translation by Center Stage Associate Artistic Director Rick Davis. The third offering in the current season is John Guare's futuristic absurd piece "Marco Polo Sings a Solo," playing in the Edward's Gymnasium.
The theater company is the dream of two young Baltimoreans, Ramsay and Russell Muth. Muth directed "The Fan" and Ramsay made his directorial debut with "Marco Polo." They are committed to staging lesser-known theater classics and thought-provoking original works. This year the group has 45 cast members who participate in every aspect of the productions.
"The RE:DISCOVERY Series at Center Stage was our inspiration," artistic director Muth said during a recent interview. "We are trying to follow their professional example. I thought plays you don't see often should be the kind of thing done in summer theater."
Ramsay, who was going over last-minute details with Muth on "The Best Western" script, observed, "One of the reasons we founded the company was because of a lot of artistically hungry actors we know who want to do theater and are passionate about their work. The work is their priority, and they strive very hard for professional quality."
Most of the actors are in intensive theater training programs at various colleges including Denison University, Towson State University, University of Maryland Baltimore County, Yale Drama School, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Northwestern University. There are also several New York actors in the cast.
"We would like to arrive at the point where we work with Equity contracts and non-Equity contracts to provide good professional summer jobs," Muth said.
Funded through private donations and box office receipts, the company pays each actor a stipend.
"This year we received a $3,000 grant from the Maryland Arts Council, which helped greatly with our costumes and rather intricate sets," Muth said.
"At the outset we were able to form an impressive board of patrons and friends who have been generous in their contributions and physical support but we still need a lot more money in order to continue."
Muth and Ramsay, associate artistic director and a trained actor, have worked at Center Stage in ensemble parts in "Man and Superman" and "An Enemy of the People."
A graduate of McDonogh School, Muth, 24, received his bachelor of arts in theater from Denison University in Granville, Ohio, and is working toward his masters of fine arts in directing at Indiana University.
Ramsay, 27, is a graduate of Boys Latin School in Baltimore. He attended Denison University and performed last season with the Trinity Repertory Theatre in Providence, R.I.
"Our acting style has been described as dynamic," Muth said. "There is a great deal of energy and precision. The actor must be prepared and capable of total concentration."
"We don't put up with destructive attitudes. We want to learn from each other," added Ramsay, who has had no formal training as a playwright. "I have a passion for theater," he said. "I find myself often in great anxiety about our culture . . . the way our country is going. There is an angry voice in my plays but I try not to hit the audience over the head with it."
A new arts center planned for McDonogh School will enable the troupe to expand its artistic endeavors. "The center will seat 325 and is expected to be completed by the end of April '93 and will be similar to the Head Theatre at Center Stage and air-conditioned. It will be our indoor home for one show but we will continue our outdoor plays at the Child's Memorial," Ramsay said.
"We plan to do one original a season," Muth said. "Next year Matt will take a year off and act instead of write so we can give someone else a chance to have his or her play produced."
"The McDonogh School has been very supportive although they had reservations at first," Ramsay said. "We were successful due to play selection, dedicated people and high work ethics."
The Bowman Ensemble will continue in repertory through Aug. 10, except Monday, Tuesday and Aug. 5. Show time is 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 at the door, $8 if purchased in advance and $21 for all three plays. For reservations and further information, call 363-9254.