If you are not finding enough gore and mayhem at the movies this summer, you should be able to get your fill from a couple of Baltimore’s ambitious, DIY-style theater companies, all served up with considerable gusto.
In the process, you’ll also get to experience two extraordinary theatrical works that do not come around often.
Mobtown Players’ ‘The Spanish Tragedy’
The bloodiest encounter is offered by Mobtown Players, a troupe that was recently flooded out of its home in Woodberry. That did not dampen its determination to present Thomas Kyd’s “The Spanish Tragedy”; a venue in Hampden was secured for the run.
Kyd’s play from the 1580s is a prime example of the “revenge tragedy” genre, defined neatly by an anonymous author of those days: “When the bad bleeds, then is the tragedy good.” Some bad people, along with innocent folks, do a lot of bleeding in “The Spanish Tragedy,” which boasts quite a body count.
This tale of treachery, thwarted love, family honor, and revenge with a capital ‘R’ may not rise to Shakespearean heights of text or plot, even if it features a “Hamlet”-esque play-within-a-play and a ghost, but it has a certain stark power.
The Mobtown production, using an adaptation by Joshua McKerrow (he’s also the stage director) and Kat McKerrow, has the blood flying freely onstage from assorted stabbings, a shooting and a tongue-severing. For good measure, there’s also a hanging, depicted in similarly graphic fashion.
The unevenly matched cast could use more expressive fire and better timing. Above all, performers need to overcome the atrocious acoustics of St. Mary’s Outreach Center by following old-school advice: Play to the balcony. Otherwise, a lot of dialogue will be lost (noisy fans in the un-air-conditioned space do not help).
The most affecting, nuanced acting comes from Frank Vince as Hieronimo, the man determined to avenge the crude murder of his son, Horatio (a mostly effective Rob Vary).
There are colorful flashes from Kat McKerrow as Bellimperia, bent on avenging her lover slain in battle; Jennifer Hasselbusch as Horatio’s unhinged mother; and Jeffrey Gangwisch as a nerdy, almost Martin Short-ish servant caught up in the killing.
For a gritty walk on the wild side, check out Annex Theater’s bold staging of “The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade.”
Commonly shortened to “Marat/Sade,” this 1964 work by Peter Weiss (his name is curiously missing from the playbill) imagines the unruly residents of a mental ward in 1808 acting out a play by Sade about the 1793 murder of French Revolution hero Marat.
Issues of human rights, justice, suffering, politics, religion and more all get churned up in theatrically brilliant fashion, with Sade and Marat debating philosophical points about revolutions that merely rearrange and realign.
The no-holds-barred Annex production at the tiny Chicken Box, vibrantly directed by Sarah Heiderman and Philip Doccolo, brings the audience very close to the action. (Be prepared for little or no air-conditioning, which may make you feel even closer.)
Trevor Wilhelms is fiercely focused as the sore-covered, mostly bathtub-ridden Marat and makes much of his big speeches. Doccolo deftly evokes Sade’s cynicism and, in one of the most stinging scenes, his famed taste for sexual taboos.
The large ensemble of scantily clad inmates gets almost too deep into character for comfort, wallowing on a filthy floor and revealing any number of tics, quirks and impolite habits.
The musical score by Richard Peaslee from Peter Brook’s famous 1964 Royal Shakespeare Company staging gets a vivid workout from the cast, solidly supported by a band directed by Jacques Sossman.
Annex Theater, which hopes to open a home of its own on Howard Street in a few years, demonstrates considerable nerve and imagination in this bold production of a troubling work that has a lot to say about our troubled world.