In the opening scene of Calderon de la Barca's "The Phantom Lady," a mysterious veiled woman --es across the stage begging a nobleman for protection, and moments later the nobleman finds himself in the throes of a sword fight.
Before you can say, "Boo!," this Bowman Ensemble production, presented outdoors at McDonogh School, introduces the major themes of this 17th century Spanish comedy -- romance and chivalry. And, judging from the characters' wildly exaggerated behavior, Calderon believed human nature is equally silly in matters of love and honor.
The plot is sufficiently convoluted to prompt one character to remark, "This is impossibly confusing." The comment is typical of this highly theatrical, self-reflexive new translation. The work of former Center Stage associate artistic director Rick Davis, it brings a modern sensibility to a relatively obscure classic.
The lady of the title is Dona Angela, a widow living with her two brothers. When a nobleman named Don Manuel becomes a guest in their house, the brothers, fearing for their sister's honor, conceal the door to her room behind a mirrored panel. However, Angela's maid discovers how to open the panel, and Angela pTC begins slipping into Manuel's room when he is away, leaving secret tokens of affection.
It takes considerable assurance to carry off Calderon's swash, buckle and romantic folly, and as Don Manuel, Bruce R. Nelson exudes the necessary style, though at times he overdoes the refinement of the nobility. As the brothers who are his hosts, Joey Scherr displays admirable timing, but Matthew S. Ramsay seems less comfortable in this period production. Suzy Allison is mixture of haughtiness and naughtiness as Dona Angela, and as servants, Ron Bopst and Johanna Cox serve both the production and their employers with comic prowess.
Adding to the modern feel of the production, Danila Korogodsky has designed an abstract set consisting primarily of a red scaffolding that diagonally dissects the stage. It's a striking image, but it is not used to advantage. For some reason, director C. Russell Muth has arranged the action so that Angela and Manuel's rooms switch places, which further exacerbates the confusion.
On various occasions, the characters in "The Phantom Lady" marvel at their predicaments. And with an outdoor production, Mother Nature has a way of adding to these. (On opening night, the elements toppled the set, which was righted just in time; then the wind extinguished a series of candles and, at one point, even the stage lights.)
However, Calderon intended many of his works to be performed outdoors, which may explain the references to goblins, devils, and of course, phantoms, fooling with the lights. Or . . . maybe there really is a phantom making mischief for this production. If so, it would appear to be a Good Phantom since the Bowman Ensemble's quick-witted cast readily adapts to its antics, and the result only enhances the joyful experience of watching this gutsy young company meet the challenge of presenting a period comedy under Baltimore's unpredictable summer skies.
'The Phantom Lady'
When: July 25, 26, Aug. 1, 2, 5, 6 and 7.
Where: Child's Memorial, McDonogh School, Owings Mills.
Tickets: $10. (Gala, Aug. 1, $35.)
Call: (410) 243-3676.