Baltimore's theater community got even more diverse last year with the arrival of an ensemble devoted to the work of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender artists.
Iron Crow Theatre Company opened its first full season last fall with "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and the arresting premiere of "Apartment 213," a play about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, written, directed and performed by Joseph Ritsch, one of the troupe's founding members.
The season continued in the spring with the decidedly off-beat "Swimming in the Shallows," which included a boy-meets-shark romance.
To wrap up the season this month, Iron Crow presents Brad Fraser's dark work, "Love and Human Remains," which happens to involve another serial killer.
"That's not really what it's about," said Ritsch, who is directing this new production. "It's about the characters and their relationships, sexual and emotional. And Brad is writing about it all — gay, lesbian, bi, heterosexual."
The play, originally titled "Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love," premiered in 1989 and was made into a film a few years later. It put Fraser, now one of Canada's leading playwrights, on the map.
"It's sort of a Grimm's fairy tale," said Iron Crow artistic director Steve Satta. "You're very much aware of metaphysical issues. The serial killer symbolizes a fear of intimacy, a fear of AIDS, a fear of our own mortality. It's also a really fun play, in a dark, twisted way. It's constructed like a graphic novel — Brad is a comic book fanatic."
Although Fraser set the play in his hometown of Edmonton, Alberta, he "allows it to be set locally," Ritsch, 42, said. "We've had a lot of fun with that. It's very much a memory play, a play about decay, so we've set it in an abandoned rowhouse in Baltimore."
Ritsch moved here from New York in 2008 to earn a graduate degree in theater at Towson University. Satta, also from New York, has been on the TU faculty since 2000; he's associate professor of voice and acting.
"I always wanted to start a queer theater," Satta, 46, said. "I was surprised there wasn't one in Baltimore."
In 2009, Satta and several other artists in the area collaborated on "Gay Expectations," a multi-genre show presented on the UB Spotlight series at the University of Baltimore as part of Baltimore Gay Pride. That event led to the participants to create Iron Crow, which has a dozen ensemble members.
The company's name is intended to evoke both an avian image (crows were associated in some mythologies with mischief-makers) and crowbars, to symbolize the act of opening things up.
"I really like Baltimore," said Ritsch, who also does freelance work in the region (he provided the choreography for Everyman Theatre's current production of "Pygmalion"). "There's an edge to this city. And it's a great time to be in the theater community here."
Iron Crow pays a modest stipend to artists, onstage and backstage. Members handle the administrative duties, from the nitty-gritty of putting up posters to raising money. Production costs for the 2010-2011 season have ranged from $3,000 to $8,000 each.
"We run a pretty tight ship," Satta said. "We have a couple of angels who have helped with funding. But we need more of a track record before we can go out and ask for grants."
The company spent most of its first season at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Mount Vernon.
"The church was very supportive," Ritsch said, "and it was great being in the heart of the 'gay-borhood.' But as a performance space, it was very challenging for us, very limiting."
For "Love and Human Remains," Iron Crow has moved into the Swirnow Theatre on the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus. That venue provides technical facilities the company craves, but it's not available at all times of the season. Things will be a bit nomadic next season — one production will be presented back at the church, two at Baltimore Theatre Project and one at a location to be determined.
Iron Crow's mission to offer plays that address topics and issues of particular interest to the gay community has not narrowed the response of the public.
"We've had a very mixed audience," Satta said, "including college-age kids. They've been very supportive."
Surprisingly, one demographic hasn't come out in force.
"The gay and lesbian community is not breaking down our doors," Ritsch said. "We're not getting as much support from that community as we thought we would."
If you go
Iron Crow Theatre Company's production of "Love and Human Remains" runs through June 18 at Swirnow Theatre, Johns Hopkins University, 3400 N. Charles St. $10-$15. Call 443-468-4837 or go to ironcrowtheatre.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun