Theater is by nature one of the more ephemeral arts; it isn't preserved for posterity like a painting on canvas, or a movie on film. But theaters themselves have permanence, and this year a little more permanence arrived on the Baltimore theater scene.
The most shining example was Center Stage's new, flexible second stage -- the long-awaited fourth-floor Head Theater. A strong indication of its potential came from seeing it arranged as a little gilded Victorian opera house for Charles Ludlam's spoof "The Mystery of Irma Vep" at the end of last season, then returning at the start of the current season to find it transformed into a cavernous abandoned town hall for Ugo Betti's "The Queen and the Rebels."
On a far smaller scale, Fells Point Corner Theatre became the first community theater in town with two stages when it unveiled its still-rudimentary first-floor auditorium earlier this month. This is the latest indication of the growth of Baltimore's little theaters -- growth that can be measured in both quantity and quality (but more on that later).
On the university scene, Towson State did a sparkling rehab of Stephens Hall, and although this facility isn't limited to theater, the inaugural production of "West Side Story" proved it a fine showcase for traditional fare.
But considering the state of the economy, let's hope buildings aren't the only answer. In October, the Abell Foundation released a study stating that, in order to continue attracting top touring productions, the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts needs a venue larger than the Mechanic Theatre and more suitable than the Lyric Opera House. In theory, this is a grand idea -- as is the proposed Power Plant site. However, with libraries, schools and fire stations on the endangered species list, the timing of this report seems less than auspicious.
And the fact is, the Mechanic is one of the few theaters that continues to attract out-of-town tryouts. Ironically, the significance of this was rendered all the more clear when "Nick and Nora" stood Baltimore up -- for the second year in a row -- after the producers decided it was too costly to go out of town. At least that's what the Mechanic was told.
More recently, the New York Times quoted one of "Nick and Nora's" producers as saying that director-librettist Arthur Laurents had felt the show was too sophisticated for Baltimoreans -- that we wouldn't understand the humor. Well, apparently New Yorkers didn't understand it either, because it closed there after nine performances. Not coming here was "a bad judgment call," Elizabeth I. McCann, another producer, admitted in a letter to Variety.
Baltimore's importance as a theater town received more positive recognition with the appointment of Stan Wojewodski Jr. -- longtime artistic director of Center Stage -- to head the Yale School of Drama and Yale Repertory Theatre. Two weeks ago Center Stage announced the selection of Irene Lewis as his successor -- her long association with the theater promises continuity, and her distinct sensibility promises a new and different future.
Now, a few highlights from Baltimore's burgeoning community theaters. This fall, the Spotlighters strutted its stuff with a stunningly ambitious "Grapes of Wrath." Nor did period dramas prove too big for the little theaters. Fells Point Corner presented a chilling "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," and Theatre Hopkins stirred up a frothy "Waltz of the Toreadors."
Among newer troupes, New Century continued to show promise; Splitting Image sensitively examined the important issue of child abuse; and on the lighter side, the Bowman Ensemble brought off a zany rendition of John Guare's "Marco Polo Sings a Solo."
Of course, the Theatre Project holds the local patent on the zany and avant-garde, and yet, universal chords were struck by both Sandglass' "Invitations to Heaven" and Tmu-Na's Gulf War-inspired "Shelter."
Intriguingly, Fells Point Cabaret Theatre's leaden, opportunistic "Saddam" proved that the same inspiration can produce a less-than-inspirational result. And, Towson State's unenlightened "Seven Stages" proved that sometimes the avant garde should be more guarded.
Finally, to return to the commercial arena: A rotten tomato to the touring production of "Starlight Express," which substituted a film -- and a lame one at that -- for the show's trickier action sequences; and a bouquet of roses to the "new" Gershwin musical, "Crazy for You," which opened at Washington's National Theatre just in time for this article, and which will arrive on Broadway not a moment too soon to breathe new life into the ailing grand old American musical.
The best of '91 . . .
* Center Stage's Head Theater, a state-of-the art, flexible-seating second stage, whose potential has only begun to be tapped.
* "Love Letters," Mechanic Theatre. Baltimoreans had the rich opportunity to see the great Colleen Dewhurst in her final, glowing stage performance; the actress died in August.
* "The Elephant Man," Olney Theatre. Towson State alum Bruce R. Nelson delivered a riveting performance in the title role.
* "The Grapes of Wrath," Spotlighters. Stunning realization of a challenging script.
* "Crazy for You," National Theatre. "New" Gershwin musical has what it takes to breathe fresh life into ailing Broadway form.
. . . and the worst
* "Starlight Express," Lyric Opera House. Lame film sequences substituted for some of the trickier live action.
* "Saddam," Fells Point Cabaret Theatre. Leaden and opportunistic.
* "Seven Stages," Theatre Project. Towson State's unenlightened look at enlightenment; a regrettable export to the Edinburgh Theatre Festival.
* "Wicked Ways," Lyric Opera House. Poorly constructed, poorly presented gospel musical; audiences for this popular medium deserve better.