What's a Little Death, an experimental riff at Theatre Project that begins where Hamlet leaves off, is atmospheric, ambitious, lyrical, well-performed - and fatally inert.
And that's a pity, because this debut work by Three Hands Clapping, Baltimore's newest professional theater company, is bursting with talent. From the moment that the house doors are thrown open, it's apparent that this ensemble knows what it is doing.
Daniel Ettinger's set instantly sets the mood. On the stage, we see these objects: a large cross stuck into the ground, a sandbox filled with dirt and a skull. All are aglow with a dusty white light reminiscent of moonshine. Four bodies are sprawled on the ground.
Those corpses turn out to be familiar dead folk: Hamlet, Queen Gertrude, Laertes and the drowned Ophelia.
As envisaged by the playwright, Juanita Rockwell, the gravedigger has quite a job because the dead people won't stay buried. Thanks to an endless war, the earth is so stuffed with bodies, it keeps spewing them back out.
As the gravedigger explains:
"After the Wet One, here, popped out in the rain,
It got to be like spring had come to stay,
Except with bodies, slipping their heads like buds
Up through the earth."
Careful listeners will notice that the script is written in blank verse, and individual passages are quite lovely. Rockwell also wrote the lyrics for a few short songs, composed by her husband, Chas Marsh, in the style of Kurt Weill, British dancing hall music, and Renaissance ballads.
The five-member cast (Caroline Reck, Joseph W. Ritsch, Jomar Tagatac, Colleen Harris and Natalie Handel) all are graduates of professional theater training programs, and it shows. They are equally adept at pulling off a courtly bow, at classic clown routines (the corpses' limbs refuse to remain where the gravedigger places them), at speaking the Shakespearean dialect clearly and at remaining utterly motionless for several minutes (which is a lot more difficult than it sounds).
Harris and Ritsch in particular also display impressive singing voices. I'd love to see what this cast could do in a more conventional theater piece.
But, the show is hampered by a bewildering lack of interest in storytelling.
Along with books, films and television, theater is one of the narrative arts, and even the playwrights of the Theatre of the Absurd (Beckett, Pinter, Ionesco) take their responsibility in this regard as seriously as did Shakespeare and Moliere.
What's a Little Death isn't as much a story as it is a group of poems loosely organized around a theme.
The show has no sense of momentum, of forward thrust, of a cumulative effect. The story doesn't start in one place and end up in another. Relationships don't change or evolve. Because of this lack of cohesion, we're left with a series of messages, none new: War is bad because lots of people die. And, the bigwigs who start the wars are the least likely to suffer the awful consequences.
Though What's a Little Death clocks in at less than an hour, the evening felt long.
Heaven knows, Baltimore could use another professional theater company, and this one is brimming with potential. Rockwell started the MFA theater program at Towson University and previously oversaw premieres by such well-known playwrights as Paula Vogel and Suzan-Lori Parks. Marsh has been a professional musician for 40 years. Leslie Felbain, Death's director, was the movement coach for Barry Humphries (best known for his character, Dame Edna Everage).
These are the three hands of Three Hands Clapping, and in November, the fledgling troupe will mount its second production at the University of Maryland, College Park. Here's hoping that, by then, I'll be able to applaud in earnest.
If you go
What's A Little Death runs at Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St., through Sept. 14. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sundays. $10-$20. 410-752-8558 or theatreproject.org.