Excavating an assassin in 'The Booth Project'

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Harford County's most notorious native son has been exhumed theatrically.

"The Booth Project," an experimental work about Lincoln's assassin premiering this week at the Theatre Project, is the brainchild of Baltimore native Ryan Clark. So is the company performing it — Quarry Theatre

Clark returned to the area about three years ago from New York City, where he held posts with a theater company and a performing arts high school. He has been teaching at Harford Community College and Towson University, and will soon join the faculty at the Catonsville campus of the Community College of Baltimore County.

"When I came back from New York, I lived in Harford County with my folks," said Clark, 39. "We have a history there going back over 100 years. My great-great-grandfather had a farm there. It reminded me that the Booth family is also from there. I thought it would be cool to explore John Wilkes Booth, to explore who this man was."

On a shoestring, Clark founded Quarry Theatre with the help of young actors studying at Harford Community College, where a workshop of "The Booth Project" was held last year.

"The name of the company is from the verb," Clark said, "and it's about digging for the meaning of the human condition, to excavate something deeper. I have always been interested in the idea of what theater could do beyond a [traditional] play or musical, beyond what TV or film can do."

In the case of "The Booth Project," which is performed with a five-member cast, don't expect a linear plot or character names.

"It's a one-hour piece of theater that flows from vignette to vignette, a moment-to-moment work," Clark said. "There is some text, but a lot of movement and sound as well. It is almost like a dance concert, in a sense."

In creating his work, Clark was struck by certain aspects of Booth's well-chronicled life.

"What I found very interesting is the rivalry between Booth and his brother Edwin, who was a very successful actor in New York and had a lot of acclaim in Europe as well," Clark said. "Booth was not as good an actor as his brother; he would forget his lines onstage. But he had this real need for fame and glory."

Clark found an incident in Booth's youth particularly intriguing.

"He was really fascinated with the occult and supernatural," Clark said. "That's an energy that runs through the Booth family line. He and his sister went to a Harford County fair one year, and Booth saw a fortuneteller who told him, 'You will have glory, but you will come to a bad end.' I've woven that into the work."

Making any killer the subject of a theatrical experience runs the risk of generating some sort of sympathy.

"Personally, I think Booth's pretty horrible," Clark said. "But I think it can be too easy to dismiss people as just bad guys or good guys. I tried to keep a point of view out of it. I am basically telling people this is what we've discovered, and the audience can make up its mind about it."

Clark has another provocative topic ready for his next piece, which he plans to title "Reagan's Children," about the generation that grew up during that president's years in office.

Meanwhile, Quarry Theatre will attempt to establish a foothold in Baltimore's theater community with "The Booth Project."

"When I was growing up, Center Stage was the big daddy," Clark said. "Now Everyman is huge, too, and there are these smaller companies doing wonderful work. It makes this city so exciting to live in."

If you go

"The Booth Project" will be performed at 8 p.m. through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday at Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. Tickets are $11.25 to $16.75. Call 410-752-8558 or go to