Visitors to the former Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church in Hampden are in for a jolt. The spot where couples exchanged their marital vows has been creatively transformed into a bit of Renaissance England, specifically the early London theaters where William Shakespeare’s plays were performed during his lifetime.
Cabinetmaker Thomas Brown, 66, happened upon the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, which took over the church about 10 year ago, and vowed to re-envision the acting company’s performance space. He didn’t hold back.
However, his timing was off. Just as this bravura piece of stagecraft was making its debut, the pandemic hit. The Baltimore Shakespeare Factory managed a production or two, but now his re-creation at 3900 Roland Avenue is on an agonizing temporary pause. The stage has a name, Kestrel, after a bird native to London and Baltimore.
Like so many issues related to the COVID-19 surge, it all seems a shame.
Brown estimates he donated $12,000 to $15,000 worth of material and labor for his imaginative and surprising creation.
“For years I worked under the strict rules of historic preservation - rebuilding doors for homes in Bolton Hill,” Brown said. “But here, I could do what I wanted. I call it a monument to Shakespeare.”
Walking the stage, he said: “I meant it to be a delight to the actors and audiences and as an ongoing asset to live theater culture in Baltimore.”
He explained his wife, Kathleen Brown, is an English professor who taught for 45 years at Stevenson University.
“And I’ve never been able to exercise so much creativity on my own,” Thomas Brown said.
And as he reflected on this grand assemblage of linenfold panels, bay windows and balconies, he said: “A theater that the Bard would recognize were he magically to appear.”
The old church, still owned by the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, retains its traditional interior — well, most of it. The new stage sits between expansive stained glass windows of Moses delivering the Ten Commandments and Jesus preaching to the disciples. In between is the place where “King Lear” and “The Tempest” reign.
The church and its land were a donation of Baltimore’s 19th century industrialist, Robert Poole, whose name is commemorated in a Hampden public school and whose iron foundry is now fancy real estate and the Woodberry Kitchen restaurant.
The Baltimore Shakespeare Factory prides itself (in non-pandemic times) on mounting plays where its actors speak in original pronunciation, a version of English tinged in a lush Celtic-heavy sound. Brown, who has never acted before, has mastered this pronunciation and appeared in “King Lear.”
“It’s really fun. It’s not a museum,” said Jamie Horrell, the company’s music director, who likes to introduce bits of modern pop music into the productions.
The justification for Lady Gaga at the beginning or during the intermission is that popular songs were performed in Elizabethan times. He also said the company stresses diversity in casting.
“We cast people of color and our roles are gender neutral,” Horrell said. “We had two productions that were all female.”
Brown styles himself as a “woodwright” and operates Thomas Brown, Woodwright LLC from a massive stone building at 330 W. 23rd St., off Howard Street in the Remington neighborhood. Inside, there’s a cocoon of fellow artisans making the bespoke stuff that Amazon does not offer.
The Shakespearean set was made, in pieces, at Brown’s machine shop in what was a 1905 ice house formerly owned by American Ice Co. The building has chunky stone walls that were useful for insulating the huge ice blocks once stored there.
When he wasn’t making the stage in Hampden, Brown worked on the Basilica of the Assumption, the Homewood mansion at Johns Hopkins and the Clifton Mansion in Clifton Park in Northeast Baltimore.
He also purchased the tools of his art, like milling machines from the John Knipp Co. in Brooklyn in southern Baltimore.
As a fine cabinetmaker, he selected white oak, red oak, ash and walnut to form a Jacobean parquet floor where the actors walk. He recalled his first woodworking job, bending sides for viola da gambas, an ancestor instrument of the violin.
The theater uses no amplification and no electric musical instruments. And the company hopes to restore the Saint Mary’s unused pipe organ.
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“We hope to survive,” Brown said. “This is by no means apparent. On a good night, we get an audience of 70 or 80. People who don’t know us are amazed. We try to promulgate the original spirit, to keep the Shakespeare fire lit, even in times like this.”