Baltimore Annex Theater breaks in new home with 'Macbeth'

The city's eclectic theater scene includes DIY-style troupes that cleverly carve out spaces for themselves, sometimes in unlikely spots. Consider the case of Baltimore Annex Theater.

Most folks passing the long-deserted New York Fried Chicken store at the corner of North Charles Street and North Avenue would probably not think, "What a cool spot for a theater." The Annex team saw precisely that possibility.

After a lot of clawing away at the remnants of the fast food emporium and a lot of waiting for city permits, the company's new home, dubbed -- what else? -- the Chicken Box, opened over the holiday weekend with an offbeat staging of Shakespeare's fast-moving tragedy "Macbeth."

The place still looks rather primitive inside, and not terribly inviting on the outside -- although, apparently, inviting enough for some. In the middle of Act 2 the night I was there, a passerby pounded persistently on the door, seeking, it appeared, the attractions offered by the building's previous occupant (unfortunately, the interruption came way too late to fit the Act 1 line, "Here's a knocking indeed"). The action barely paused while one of the players opened the door to the startled visitor.

The Annexers have carved out an intimate performance area. For this production, the staging (designed by Rick Gerriets) has been arranged in a long, narrow line -- appropriately sword-like -- with two facing, flanking rows of seats for the audience.

Director Evan Moritz (pictured in the thumbnail) has the action moving at a cinematic clip, making use of every part of the small room and even the outside (actors often make entrance and exits through the theater's front door). The pivotal ghost scene gets a clever treatment with a minimum of space and material.   

For reasons not entirely clear, Moritz has taken a gender-blind approach to casting, which yields a woman in the title role, another as Duncan, and a few more in other male roles. For balance, one of the witches is a male. The shift in perspective does not necessarily result in a profound new understanding of the text or human relations or whatever, but it doesn't alter the work's marvelous theatrical power, either.

The performance level varies widely, and the less polished efforts take a toll along the way. Also taking a toll is the widespread tendency, even among the more accomplished actors, to put awkward stresses into their lines -- some performers seem to think that suddenly shouting every other word is equivalent to giving those words greater meaning and impact.

That said, there is an engaging sweep and quirkiness to the production, which features a few off-the-wall costume choices and plenty of fun, spooky sounds. A good deal of violence, too. Why just talk about the slaughter of Macduff's children, for example, when you can show it, too?

The double, triple and quadruple assignments for several players takes intriguing turns at times. This is especially so in the case of Cordelia Snow, Lucia Treasure and a particularly engaging Jacob Budenz. These dynamic colleagues never lose completely their initial manifestations as snaky witches, so they seem to be stealing bodies and souls when they take on other roles.

Sophie Hinderberger is a high-strung Macbeth who chomps on a red pepper as if it were an apple. There is, ultimately, a good deal of weight in the performance. Sarah Jacklin captures Lady Macbeth's insatiable ambition and proves effective in the (unfortunately over-lit) sleepwalking scene; starting that scene with only one shoe on is a nice touch.

Trevor Wilhelms makes a lithe and vibrant Banquo, while Rjyan Kidwell seems to be imagining how the role of Macduff might have been played by George Carlin.

"Macbeth" continues through June 9.

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