A gallery of jolly if rough-hewn rogues, wenches and aristocrats comes to roaring life in Henry Fielding's 1749 comic picaresque about a foundling who goes through hardships ranging from muggings to accidental seductions and ends up with true romance and riches. Getting the huge and meandering work stage-worthy is a challenge not entirely met by either David Hammond's 150-minute adaptation nor Maggie Speer's staging for Polarity Ensemble. But sly touches and grounded performances create a show that satisfies, even if it doesn't wholly surprise us.
Tom (Marcus Davis) has been raised since his questionable birth by the good Squire Allworthy (Richard Engling), whose kindnesses spark envy in the squire's nephew, Mr. Blifil (Jonathan Beal). Cast out on the road after Blifil poisons the good squire against him, Tom embarks on adventures, sword fights and plenty of trysts with well-endowed ladies — but somehow he manages to hang on to his essentially good nature and his love for virginal Sophia Western (Alex Fisher), whose desire for Tom has put her at odds with her own father. Along the way, he learns that good and evil reside in everyone. "You are no sinner, but only a man, and that is no bad thing," one of his conquests reminds him.
Hammond's sense of narrative clarity largely keeps the story on track — though the sliding doors on Dennis Mae's set seem pretty wobbly, making for less-than-smooth transitions at points. Covering the wooden walls and platforms with pages from the novel itself almost seems like special pleading — "Look how much text there is to pare!" But the 17-member ensemble works well at filling the small theater with exuberant life and saucy energy. The volume gets a bit strident here and there, but Davis' choirboy features make for a wholly believable Tom, Beal's Blifil oozes slimy self-interest and the whole endeavor is so high-spirited and eager to please that, like Tom himself, its rough surroundings can't hide its good heart.
Through April 29 at Polarity Ensemble Theatre, Josephinum Academy, 1500 N. Bell St.; $19 at 800-838-3006 or petheatre.com
"The Sweetest Swing in Baseball"
Step Up Productions steps up to the plate for its inaugural production with Rebecca Gilman's "The Sweetest Swing in Baseball." Gilman's play (last seen locally at Eclipse in 2006) is set in the world of art galleries and mental wards, but its true subject is the way that hangers-on and other lesser beings (including critics, natch) get in the way of an artist's sense of self-worth.
Dana (Elizabeth Antonucci) is a manic-depressive pixie whose latest show has, in her words, "tanked." She makes this pronouncement while getting pretty tanked herself at the opening. In short order, she loses her boyfriend, her dealer and her mind. A suicide attempt lands her in a locked ward, but her insurance will only allow for a stay of 10 days. In order to prolong her time in a cocoon away from adult responsibilities, she follows the suggestions of her fellow patients and pretends to be troubled ballplayer Darryl Strawberry and begins throwing curveballs with paintings of baseball-loving chickens.
The silly contrivances don't add up, and as is too often her wont, Gilman's penchant for painting characters in broad smug self-congratulatory strokes rather than with subtle textures works against her. (John Logan's "Red" did a much better job fleshing out an artist who struggles to balance his personal inspirations with his professional aspirations.)
But director Audrey Francis finds some breathing room amid the litany of Dana's narcissistic grievances, and Antonucci occasionally transcends Dana's self-pity by throwing some sharp elbows in the running path. Todd Kiech as Roy, a fellow patient with barely concealed homicidal impulses, nearly steals the show with his choleric line readings. And whoever came up with that stride-piano version of Nirvana's "All Apologies" that plays between acts should pat themselves on the back. That's some genius.
Through April 22 at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave.; $32.50 at 773-935-6875 or athenaeumtheatre.comCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun