A Grand Stage

August 14, 2000|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Theatre Serenissima is one eccentric space inside another, a magic box enclosed in a parlor where the decor would be somber if it weren't also whimsical. A friend of the impresario once said the miniature theater's setting would be a good place for a cat funeral.

It's not hard to see why. Consider the little platform up front framed in red brocade drapes, the pipe organ in back, the baby grand piano in the corner, the dark Oriental rugs and rows of wooden folding chairs. There's a small fountain gurgling on a side table, an assortment of bric-a-brac that includes a miniature classical sculpture in an architectural niche, a fanciful model church, masks, some wire insects, an Adam and Eve mosaic and several church organ pipe arrays.

The effect is otherworldly enough, which is to say it's a nice mood-setter for Theatre Serenissima, a labor of love and fancy.

"The ancient Greeks, they were into the gusto of doing things," says Shelley, who founded and operates the tiny story theater in his home on Mount Royal Terrace. "They would have laughed at people who were in it for the money."

For years, Shelley, who is 46, has been doing a bit of this and that.

He's one of the founders of Baltimore Clayworks, a Mount Washington pottery studio. He makes decorative pieces that are sold at the American Visionary Art Museum, and he teaches classes in mosaics, ceramics and stained glass in his basement studio. And for a few weeks a year for the past five years he has presented small audiences with Theatre Serenissima, a more elaborate and larger version of the "toy theaters" that first appeared in England in the early 19th century.

Shelley's version is tricky to describe. It's not quite a puppet theater, as it uses paper cutout figures as incidental elements in the storytelling. It's not quite a diorama, as Shelley uses lighting effects, figures moving on stage and images appearing in silhouette on a screen inside the proscenium. Picture a storybook with moving illustrations, and a few light and shadow effects.

Theatre Serenissima is billed as suitable for "adults and sophisticated children." It's storytelling in a manner likely to stir the inner child. The ornate gold proscenium roughly the size of a 30-inch television screen opens itself before you. First a door drops like a drawbridge, then the deep red curtains part, then an opaque inner screen lifts. You sit there rapt as the narrative begins, as if transfixed before a blazing fireplace.

"It's like you're back in time, in another world or something," says Beth Mowry, who attended a performance earlier this month.

"It's very intimate and very elemental, too," says Jackie Gray. "It's sort of the opposite of MTV. Everything is very static, but it's delightful. Even after you know how it's done, it's magical."

The two women are among an audience of 15 adults on a Saturday night, the first show in Shelley's brief season of seven home performances in three weeks. Guests must call in advance to reserve one of 18 seats available for each performance, although as of late last week, all shows were booked but the last two of the season: Aug. 31 and Sept. 1. But Shelley might add more dates if there's enough demand.

Shelley gave Serenissima performances at the American Visionary Art Museum last spring, and the museum's director of design and education says Shelley will be invited back next spring.

He greets his guests at the door in his wire-rim glasses, slacks and loose black shirt. After all expected guests have arrived, Shelley plays a fanfare on the baby grand or the pipe organ to announce that the show is about to begin. He steps to the front, welcomes all and, with a caveat to "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," vanishes into the brocade drapes.

House lights fade to black. Organ music from another place and era emanates from behind the curtain. Theatre Serenissima begins to open itself like a jewel box.

As a tape recording plays Shelley's narration, music background and sound effects, the man behind the curtain is quietly quite busy. Working from a cue sheet long as his arm, Shelley pulls strings, trips light switches, changes scenery. He moves little cardboard people, boats and trains onto and off the stage by moving the long sticks to which they're attached. He runs four projectors to create lightning, moonrise, sunrise and sunset, a house fire, a dream sequence in which a skeleton wields a dagger.

Between stories the man behind the curtain emerges, sometimes dressed as one of the story characters. Suddenly there's Shelley in a partial nun's habit and heavy black-rimmed glasses. Then he's popping out in a rainbow-colored turban.

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