If the plays of William Shakespeare are timeless commentaries on the human condition, then the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, entering its second season this week, will likely be around for a long time.
Kelley Dunn, the festival's artistic director, uses this year's production -- "Romeo and Juliet," opening Wednesday, July 26, at Loyola College's McManus Theater -- as an example of how Shakespeare can make us care about both a particular plot and the larger thematic implications.
"In 'Romeo and Juliet,' on the surface it's clearly about a civil dispute, and at the end the kids from each family die and the families reconcile," she says. "It touches on one of our human tragedies -- that we often don't recognize the beautiful things in our lives until they're gone. The play touches on a basic human flaw."
Of course, the too-late reconciliation of warring families is one of the play's most tragic aspects. But Ms. Dunn's approach also emphasizes the good that can arise from misfortune. "At the end there's an enormous amount of hope in what's possible."
Hope for the survivors, that is. Romeo and Juliet (played by Christopher Johnson and Dina Comolli) still end up slumped on the floor.
"There's an element in the play that's very much like 'Our Town,' because it constantly reminds us that the two people we care about most will die in the end," says this production's director, Steve Tague, a theater professor at the University of Delaware.
"Everybody knows this, the story is so familiar," he continues. " 'Romeo and Juliet' has a sense of dark premonition. [The dialogue] constantly reminds the audience that Romeo and Juliet are going to die. And so the play has an element of reminding us of how precious right now is, and how easy it is to miss the right-now moments in our lives."
One thing Shakespeare enthusiasts won't want to miss is the "Green Show" presented 45 minutes before "Romeo and Juliet." Its festive entertainment ranges from Elizabethan dancing to sword combat demonstrations.
This determination to present more than just a play is central to the mission the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival hopes to achieve in the years ahead.
The creative force behind the operation, Ms. Dunn, 35, grew up in Hamilton, but left Baltimore for a career of television acting in Los Angeles. She gradually became more interested in live theater, which culminated in a master's in fine arts in classical theater from the University of Delaware, where she studied with Mr. Tague.
Then, yet another directional shift brought her back to Baltimore.
"Acting was wonderful, but I really began to get a particular vision for theater. I'm dedicated to providing theater that's worth two hours of your life," Ms. Dunn says of her decision to start her own company.
A professional company devoted to Shakespeare struck her as an idea that would work in Baltimore. "There's nothing else like this, and we wouldn't be competing with anybody," she observes.
Ms. Dunn doesn't see the UMBC-affiliated Shakespeare on Wheels, currently on a hiatus mandated by a budget shortfall, as being similar. For example, her company has an Actors Equity contract, she says.
The Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, which joins more than 100 Shakespeare festivals and companies in operation, has had an auspicious start. Last summer's production of "Midsummer Night's Dream," held outdoors at the Cloisters Amphitheater, was well-received by the critics. The company also has been well-received by the community's cultural money-givers. She says her annual budget of $300,000 comes from corporations, foundations, private donors, ticket sales and public sources, including the Maryland State Arts Council and Maryland State Department of Education.
The company's Shakespeare-plus approach also currently includes two education programs geared to high school and college students: An outreach program brings some of the actors into area schools during the academic year, with a 90-minute version of "Romeo and Juliet" slated for school visits starting this fall; and an intern-mentor program during the summer production season allows area students to work alongside theater professionals on the actual mounting of a show.
Starting modestly with a single-production season in 1994 and 1995, the group intends to expand to two productions next summer. If all goes as planned, four-play summer seasons should be the norm by the turn of the century. Even at that clip, however, it would still take a long time to run through all 37 of Shakespeare's plays.
'ROMEO AND JULIET'
Where: McManus Theater, Loyola College
When: Opens Wednesday, July 26, at 8 p.m. with a gala performance. Subsequent performances Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; matinees Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Through Aug. 20. After its run at Loyola, the production moves to the Peggy & Yale Gordon Center for Performing Arts in Owings Mills for five performances starting Aug. 26
Tickets: $18-$25. The opening night gala is $35
Call: Loyola College box office at (410) 617-5024 or Ticketmaster (410) 481-SEAT