Critical Mass Overall, stage is strong despite some losses


December 29, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The season of joy has passed, and the more somber season of review is upon us. In arts and entertainment, 1996 was marked by many a going (Horn & Horn lunchroom, Shakespeare on Wheels, the announcement of David Zinman's departure) and an important staying (the Lucas Collection). Bad guys (Jack Valenti with his Hollywood-friendly TV ratings system) were as likely to make news as angels (John Travolta in "Michael"), and personalities (the Michael Jackson marriage saga) got more attention than performances (Alanis Morissette's best-selling album). Here's a closer look at the year's highlights and low lights, courtesy of The Sun's critics.

Baltimore theater experienced some decided low points in 1996 -- chief among them the loss of Shakespeare on Wheels and the imperiled state of Arena Players. But it's a telling indication of the overall strength of area stages that charting the year reveals many more peaks than valleys.

To begin at the top, Baltimoreans were treated to one of the finest touring performances in years when Marian Seldes starred in Edward Albee's "Three Tall Women" at the Mechanic Theatre. The Mechanic faced serious troubles two seasons ago, not the )) least of which were artistically weak productions. But like "Three Tall Women," the caliber of the Mechanic's shows has risen noticeably since the theater's partnership with Jujamcyn Theaters and Productions.

Financially, the Mechanic's expanded board of directors has now raised $1.8 million of its $2 million goal to offset deficits and supplement production revenues. And, the board continues to explore sites and costs for a new theater that can meet the technological needs of megamusicals too large for the city's existing houses.

A few blocks away, the third week in December was the most music-filled in Center Stage's 33-year history, as a pair of world premiere musicals -- the sparkling, and possibly Broadway-bound, "Triumph of Love" and the continuing "Thunder Knocking on the Door: A Blusical Tale of Rhythm and the Blues" -- were performed on the theater's two stages.

Too loose a 'Lover'

Not all its 1996 world premieres were winners, however. "The Lover," Elizabeth Egloff's loose adaptation of Turgenev's "On the Eve," proved a little too loose; a polished production couldn't disguise holes in the script.

On a broader scale, the Baltimore Theatre Alliance, a nonprofit service organization, was launched at the civic-minded Everyman Theatre in August.

Embodying the cooperative spirit that has long characterized Baltimore's theater scene, the organization already lists about 300 individual members and 40 theaters, ranging from regional venues such as Center Stage and Olney Theatre Center to community, dinner and children's theaters.

The year's lowest ebb came when the University of Maryland Baltimore County eliminated Shakespeare on Wheels, its innovative summer touring theater that brought free performances to a quarter-million people during a 10-year period.

Shakespearean losses

Another UMBC program, the Maryland Stage Company, won acclaim when it took three short Beckett plays to the International Samuel Beckett Symposium and Festival in Strasbourg, France. But that's acclaim in a rarefied arena, as opposed to the widespread cultural good that Shakespeare on Wheels accomplished by introducing audiences of all ages, races and economic backgrounds to Shakespeare.

Summer Shakespeare suffered a further blow when financial woes forced the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival to cancel its third season. Sufficient funds have been raised, however, for the festival to continue, and even expand, its educational programs, and an abbreviated run of "Macbeth" is scheduled to open in May.

Another proud Baltimore institution was endangered when a $120,000 deficit threatened the existence of Arena Players, the country's oldest continuously operating African-American theater. Fund-raising and a reduced 1996-1997 season are now helping it stay afloat and prepare for a more secure future.

At other community theaters, last summer's Baltimore Playwrights Festival had its smallest lineup in years. But praiseworthy shows in the regular season included: Fell's Point Corner Theatre's playful rendition of David Ives' "All in the Timing"; Theatre Hopkins' splendid "The Millionairess," complete with both of George Bernard Shaw's endings; and the Spotlighters' visceral production of Sam Shepard's "Curse of the Starving Class."

In addition, Fell's Point Corner unveiled its new, larger, handicapped-accessible, first-floor theater. And a new company, Forum Theater, set up shop in the Washington Village building previously occupied by the short-lived Playwrights Theatre of Baltimore.

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