Turning to `Front Page'

Shakespeare Company moves into the 1920s

production starts today

howard live

February 09, 2007|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,sun reporter

In the comedy The Front Page, members of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company will wear 1920s-style clothing, use telephones and typewriters and talk in fast-moving dialogue, but they say their work with Shakespeare's classical plays will come in handy.

"In all of our shows, you've got to find the humor," said founding member Dan O'Brien, "especially in the tragedies."

The play, which will be performed today through Feb. 25 at Howard County Arts Center in Ellicott City, shares other themes with Shakespeare, as well, said director and company founder Ian Gallanar.

"It is a very funny play, but it doesn't gloss over reality," he said in the group's newsletter. "The world in which these characters live is full of energy, gile, passion and malevolence - much like the worlds Shakespeare created."

For about three years, the company has been offering the Bard's plays outdoors at Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City during the summer and performing other classical European works at the arts center during the winter.

This time, Gallanar said in an interview, he wanted the company to take on its first American work, and The Front Page, written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur in 1928, was chosen.

Set in the press room of the criminal courts building in Chicago, it follows a reporter trying to get the scoop on an escaped prisoner while he fends off a group of tough and unscrupulous competitors.

Dramaturge and actress Rebecca Ellis explained that the play, which was a big success in its day, was named as a favorite by playwrights Tom Stoppard and Tennessee Williams. Two film versions were made of the story, and it was used more loosely as the basis for the 1940 film His Girl Friday, starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.

Gallanar said he appreciated the play much more when he read it after 10 years of working with Shakespeare. He also was excited, he said, by more recent version of the script that includes original dialogue that had been sanitized by other versions over the years.

The new script is also fully notated with information about locations, events of the time and other references. It was edited by George W. Hilton, who lives in Columbia.

One way in which the show has not weathered well is in its use of insensitive racial slang, an issue that Gallanar said his company considered carefully.

Some offensive parts were cut, but others remain. Gallanar said he hopes that, with the help of warnings in the program and publicity material, families will decide if their children are able to deal with the language and possibly use it as a learning experience.

"It really is ... important that we re-create the era," he said, "but some of it is very distracting."

While the cast recognizes the similarities between preparing for this show and for Shakespeare, members also noted some differences.

Charlie Mitchell of Timonium plays the lead role of Hildy Johnson, and he said he loves the gritty look at Chicago politics and yellow journalism. But, he said, "Shakespeare is easier to remember."

He explained that Shakespeare's use of poetic forms "has this symmetrical support system to it. The language carries you along a little easier."

O'Brien, an actor who lives in Baltimore, said that Shakespearean sets, costumes and props can be more abstract and that the stories can be set in different time periods. Contemporary works often require a specific setting.

In this case, period-accurate phones, hats, pocket watches and numerous other details are important to creating the overall effect.

And, O'Brien said, the time is familiar enough that the audience would notice if the elements are wrong.

With all the challenges, the company says it is enjoying the camaraderie of working together and trying out something that is different and broadly humorous.

"At the first reading, we were cracking each other up," Ellis said.

"There's this energy about [the play] that I think translates to the stage so well. I don't want the audience to miss a chance to see it live."

The Front Page will be performed at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays at Howard County Arts Center, 8510 High Ridge Road. Tickets and information: 866- 811-4111, or www.chesapeake shakespeare.com.


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