Reading fiction for an audience

THEATER

A theater company scores with a nearly lost art form

November 20, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The art of reading fiction aloud has been largely lost in this era of electronic entertainment. But once upon a time, reading aloud was an important form of pop culture.

Now the Performance Workshop Theatre Company has revived this art in a series of readings of short stories written by playwrights. Judging from last weekend's double bill of Luigi Pirandello's "In Silence" and Tennessee Williams' "Portrait of a Girl in Glass," the readings, jointly titled [un]told stories, are a wonderfully rich way to spend an evening.

Of course, the effectiveness of any reading depends to a great degree on the talent of the reader, and Marc Horwitz turns out to be a master lector. (A Performance Workshop co-founder, Horwitz reads all three programs in the series; the others are George Bernard Shaw's "The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God" and W.B. Yeats' "Stories of Red Hanrahan.")

Spotlighted behind a lectern, and only occasionally looking down to check the text, Horwitz does more than just read, he brings these stories and their characters to life. Not that there's anything "actorly" or the least bit overblown about his performance, directed by Marlyn G. Robinson.

To the contrary, Horwitz's approach is understated, but there's a sense of wonder in his voice. It's a fitting tone for Williams' and Pirandello's stories, both of which concern fatherless young men trying to make their way in an often hostile environment. It's also a tone that keeps the audience hanging on every word, even when the plot is familiar, as it is in "Portrait of a Girl in Glass," a precursor to Williams' The Glass Menagerie.

It's impossible to hear this 1943 story without filtering it through the play that emerged a year and a half later, and part of the pleasure is noting the ways the story differs from the play. For example, Laura, the character Williams' modeled after his sister Rose, isn't lame in the story, nor did she attend high school with the gentleman caller her brother brings home. In addition, a novel that Laura reads and rereads figures prominently in the plot.

Horwitz's voice subtly but effectively takes on different qualities for each character, from the molasses-laden cadences of the mother's Southern accent to the soft, almost heartbreaking, timbre of Laura's timid speech.

In contrast to "Portrait of a Girl," Pirandello's "In Silence" will be new to most audiences. And, its straightforward narrative will come as a surprise to those who know Pirandello primarily as the author of such form-shattering, reality-vs.-illusion plays as Six Characters in Search of an Author or Right You Are (If You Think You Are).

"In Silence" is about a young man whose single, hard-working mother - with whom he admits he's "not on familiar terms" - sends him to boarding school. On successive visits to the school, his mother appears increasingly unwell, and finally the boy is summoned home, where he discovers that she has died. Her death, however, is only one of several shattering discoveries he makes.

Although the story is related in third person, Horwitz reads it so sensitively, we experience the full range of emotions the protagonist undergoes, from fear to anger to doubt to bitterness to acceptance and, finally, grim determination.

Reading aloud may have fallen from favor, but it's not that dissimilar from the popular art form practiced by such monologists as Eric Bogosian, Danny Hoch or Lily Tomlin. In the intimate confines of the Performance Workshop Theatre, however, you're more apt to feel that you're visiting a literary salon in someone's living room than attending a "show."

Augmenting the salon feeling is the live introductory or incidental music that accompanies each reading (on the night I attended, the dulcet music was performed by oboist Mikko Goodhill, a Baltimore School for the Arts student). All in all, a more civilized, refined - and in the case of the Williams and Pirandello stories, haunting - evening would be difficult to imagine.

Show times at Performance Workshop Theatre, 28 E. Ostend St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. most Sundays, through Dec. 21 (no performances the weekend of Nov. 28). Tickets are $15 per performance, or $30 for a three-show package. For a schedule of readings, call 410-659-7830.

Staged readings

A dozen short plays - each under 15 minutes - written by juniors and seniors at the Carver Center for Arts and Technology will be given staged readings at the Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway, beginning at 1 p.m. Saturday. The young playwrights are all students of local writer, director and actress Linda Chambers, who began presenting these showcases at the Vagabonds in 2000.

The playlets, which will be performed and directed by experienced local theater artists, tackle such tough subjects as suicide, abortion, first love and the apocalypse, according to Chambers. "We had some wonderfully funny plays last year, but these were some very serious students," she said, describing the writers as "high quality, a lot of talent and most importantly, good storytellers."

Admission is free, but seating is limited, so reservations are required. Call 410-563-9135.

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