'Brief Candle' shines at Vagabond Theatre, despite some problems

July 03, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

The common advice given to novice writers is: "Write what you know." Kimberley Lynne seems to have followed it in her entertaining first play, "Brief Candle," receiving its premiere at the Vagabond Theatre as part of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival.

A local actress whose background, according to the program, includes jobs on the production staffs at various regional theaters, Lynne has penned a backstage comedy-mystery chock-full of the sort of roles actors love to play -- i.e., they get to portray actors.

Although Lynne doesn't specify the name or location of the theater where "Brief Candle" takes place, it appears to be a professional Shakespearean company on the order of Washington's Shakespeare Theatre, but situated off the beaten track, or, as one character describes it, in a "backwater marsh."

The play begins on opening night of a production of "Macbeth," a play whose history of backstage tragedies gives the willies to all superstitious theater folk. Coincidentally, it is the same play used by mystery writer Ngaio Marsh in her novel, "Light Thickens." And as in that case, the willies prove justified when one of the company members is murdered.

In "Brief Candle," however, the murder takes place during a subsequent run of "Othello," which gives Lynne a chance to add the theme of jealousy to "Macbeth's" theme of a powerful woman manipulating a man.

What makes this especially fun is that the character of the leading lady is a Method actress, who lives all of the roles she plays. Trisha Blackburn's highly affected portrayal of this overly precious prima donna is right on target. When her leading man -- played with too much understatement by Tom Nolte -- accuses her of loving the roles he plays instead of loving him, we know he's right. And it's a hoot to see how Blackburn's character reacts in emotionally taxing circumstances; she immediately takes note of her feelings and files them away for use in some future role.

Although "Brief Candle" offers a valid excuse for flamboyance, several cast members in addition to Nolte seem to be holding back or to be uncomfortable with the formality of the lines. The production is further hampered by confusion stemming from Donald Joseph Koch's set, which suggests, instead of defining, the walls separating the backstage rooms. Whether due to this design or to director Christian Garretson's blocking, many of these suggestions go unheeded, making it at times difficult to know whether characters who appear on stage together are aware of each other's presence.

But these problems are not irremediable, and they are overshadowed by such welcome touches as the inclusion of a non-naturalistic scene -- a rarity for this festival -- in which a character steps outside of himself to observe the action.

Incidentally, it may be only coincidence, but the character who seems most realistically drawn happens to be the deepest backstage figure of all -- the clean-up girl, enthusiastically portrayed by Linda B. Stein. This character begins and ends the play, and she displays more sheer joy for theater than even the troupe's star players. It may be a wild guess, but I suspect this character also comes closest to the playwright herself. And, judging from this first effort, her passion for the theater is beyond question.

'Brief Candle'

When: Tonight and tomorrow at 8:30 p.m.; Sunday at 7 p.m.

Where: Vagabond Theatre, 806 S. Broadway.

Tickets: $7.

Call: (410) 563-9135.

** 1/2

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