`Aquarium' bubbles with three playlets


Review: Joe Dennison's one-act plays are linked by mystery and a shared theme of waiting.

July 26, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

This month the Baltimore Playwrights Festival is presenting works by its two most-produced playwrights -- Joe Dennison, whose anthology of one-acts can be seen at the Spotlighters, and Kathleen Barber, whose drama "Caz" opened Thursday at Fell's Point Corner Theatre.

"Aquarium," Dennison's well-crafted bill of one-acts, is framed by a piece called "Prologue/Epilogue," in which two affable actors (James Edward Lee and Bruce Godfrey) grapple with performing a two-man version of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot."

Filled with direct audience address and theatrical jokes, this playlet -- half of which is performed at the beginning of the evening and half at the end -- is lighter in tone than its three companion pieces.

But like "Godot," the one-acts that make up "Aquarium" (succinctly directed by Mike Moran) are characterized by the shared theme of waiting as well as an element of mystery.

In "Smile," a man (Pete Taylor) and a woman (Anna Marie Sell) meet in a hospital-like setting, where they find themselves dressed in hospital gowns.

The man, who is suffering from amnesia, turns out to have fallen from a scaffolding, and she broke his fall. Learning this, cheery, talkative Taylor expresses immense gratitude to Sell, but she remains withdrawn and relatively taciturn. As the predictable ending reveals, she knows more about the accident than she initially lets on.

"Goon" also concerns strangers who meet under unlikely circumstances. Richard Price and Yvette Ebb play convicts in the nation's first maximum-security prison with co-ed cells.

It's a facility that starts out seeming like a resort but ends up more like something out of George Orwell's "1984." The mystery here is the nature of their crimes. As in "Smile," the solution is fairly predictable, but the characters' shifting power struggle keeps the viewer involved.

"Time" takes place in an institutional setting as well, but it's the most mysterious of the one-acts because Dennison chooses not to supply all the answers at the end. Marianne Angelella and Laura Cosner play what appear to be an emotionally disturbed mother and her angry daughter. Although ambiguity is often welcome, this piece might benefit from a little more information, just as the others might be able to get away with a little less.

Still, in giving us a peek at the exotic fish in his "Aquarium," Dennison displays a decided talent for putting characters in unusual situations, supplying them with credible dialogue and holding an audience's interest. And that's no fish story.

Show times at the Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, through July 31. Tickets are $10. Call 410-752-1225.

`Caz' has distinctive setting

Festival-goers who have been following Kathleen Barber's work will find the setting of "Caz" notably similar to that of her 1991 play, "Whistle the Devil" -- and with good reason. Both plays take place in the office of a tool and die manufacturer, the same type of business run by Barber's own family.

In "Caz" -- produced by Uncommon Voices and directed by Barry Feinstein -- the title character has just bought the business. The play begins on Caz's first day in charge, a day fraught with emotion, since the company's founder and owner has died suddenly, leaving Caz (Michael Leicht) with no one to guide him except the longtime office manager (Janise Bonds).

Caz soon discovers the company is in serious financial trouble, which leads him to make decisions that ultimately alienate his wife (Michelle Sampery) and the company foreman (Daniel Ferris), who happens to be his wife's old flame. Only the former owner's widow (Babs Dentz) seems to believe in him, and the non-traditional image of this older woman pitching in, dressed in overalls and safety glasses, is one of the play's best touches.

As she did in "Whistle the Devil," Barber again shows a genuine ability for creating a strong sense of place. But she tends to over-write, either reiterating what we already know or telling us more than we need to know. In a program note, Barber explains that "Caz" and "Whistle" are two parts of a projected trilogy.

Though the writing could be leaner, the characters and settings of both plays are distinctive enough to pique a theatergoer's interest in chapter three.

Show times at Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St., are 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 8. Tickets are $10. Call 410-788-1489.

A pleasant `Big'

"Big" is back. Adapted by librettist John Weidman, composer David Shire and lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. from the hit Tom Hanks movie, this 1996 musical was one of Broadway's costlier failures.

A year later, a scaled-down, revised touring version came to the Mechanic Theatre. Now a third incarnation, incorporating material from both the others, is making its area community theater debut at Cockpit in Court.

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