Playwrights fest succeeds in serious year

September 01, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

For most of us, adolescence begins around age 12 and is one of life's most awkward phases. But for the Baltimore Playwrights Festival, currently completing its 12th season, adolescence has taken the form of a relatively smooth period of maturity, acceptance and growth.

BPF is one of the few non-professional playwrights festivals in the country, according to its chairman, Richard Jackson. And it has become a fixture of the local summer theater scene. But that doesn't mean stasis has set in.

Judging from this year's eight scripts, the festival is attracting writers willing to tackle serious themes and, in a few cases, to experiment with theatrical form. Alzheimer's, sexual harassment and the reliability of memory were among the issues explored. And two scripts -- "Quackenbush" and "Camisado" -- took the bold step of breaking the naturalistic tradition that characterizes much of American drama.

"Quackenbush" was one of the most demanding plays in form as well as content. Playwright Joe Dennison employed several highly theatrical devices, including using four actors to portray one married couple, then juxtaposing the scenes between the pairs of actors to demonstrate the changes wrought by Alzheimer's disease.

Although he could have taken this even further, the playwright created one of the most moving scripts I've ever seen in this

festival -- an especially commendable achievement since he accomplished it without resorting to a movie-of-the-week-style tear-jerker.

If "Quackenbush's" experimentation didn't go quite far enough, "Camisado" went a little too far. Playwright Kathleen Barber has had a record number of BPF productions (five), but "Camisado" was her first departure from realism.

An account of the brief relationship between a repressed woman and a con artist half her age, it included direct audience address as well as dream sequences. Regrettably, these non-naturalistic touches seemed more like theatrical flourishes than essential elements, but Barber deserves credit for her willingness to experiment. (The only festival offering still running, "Camisado" continues through Sunday at Fells Point Corner Theatre.)

One of the most topical, incendiary subjects tackled this summer was sexual harassment -- an issue that continues to make headlines and one that David Mamet explored on the professional stage last season in his controversial "Oleanna." Undaunted, or perhaps encouraged, by these examples, Patricia Lin's "In the Grasp" transported the subject to the college athletic field. Her facility as a storyteller combined with the theme of anti-Asian bigotry -- which she also examined in last year's "The Faith Keeper" -- mark Lin as a playwright to watch.

In terms of more traditional material, K. Siobhan Wright's "Camera Obscura" and Kimberley Lynne's "Home to Center" focused on that favorite subject of American drama -- the family. I'm not sure what it says about the state of the American family, but both plays dealt with incest. "Camera Obscura" cast an intriguing, updated light on the subject by also examining the accuracy of memory. "Home to Center," however, sacrificed much of its potential impact by concentrating on the supposedly forbidden love between second cousins -- love that is not only not forbidden, it's legal.

The festival's three other scripts exhibited various weaknesses, though they were not without interest. Patricia Plante's "Give Back the Light: One Day in the Life of Sarah Bernhardt" was the writer's latest foray into biographical theater. While the script was informative, it failed to make that extra leap that characterizes masterpieces of the form, which use historical figures to illuminate broader issues.

Avalon Theatre's "The Belle of Bourbon Street," Grant Carrington's play about the nature and inspiration of art, was one of the few scripts hampered by an inferior production -- a marked improvement over earlier seasons, when production quality was often highly variable.

Also unlike past seasons, none of this year's plays could be accused of imitating sitcoms. However, William Biddle's "Rich as Croesus," in which a bankrupt stockbroker imagines he's Croesus, seemed a little too much like a stretched-out "Saturday Night Live" sketch.

Finally, the festival reached a milestone this summer -- "Camisado" was its 100th production. And, though the half-dozen participating theaters report less patronage than /^ during their regular seasons, attendance is up, according to BPF chairman Jackson. Jackson also offers a no-nonsense description of the festival's adventuresome audiences: "You take your dollars and you plunk them down and you have no idea what you're going to see." Though these patrons don't expect the next Pulitzer Prize winner, occasionally plays move on to bigger things. This past spring, for instance, a 1987 script, Kenneth F. Hoke-Witherspoon's "Last Night at Ace High," was produced off-Broadway by the Negro Ensemble Company.

The festival also represents the best example of cooperation between Baltimore's community theaters -- something local audiences may take for granted, though it's probably a rarity elsewhere. A new theater, AXIS, joined the lineup this year.

Looking ahead, Jackson feels the festival is on firm enough ground to apply for grants, and he notes that Maryland Public Television has expressed interest in televising a script if the festival can attract funding.

Meanwhile, next year's festival is already looking at scripts. The deadline is Nov. 30. For guidelines, write to Baltimore Playwrights Festival, c/o Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St., Baltimore, Md. 21231.

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