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Critical Mass Overall, stage is strong despite some losses; Theater

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The season of joy has passed, and the more somber season of review is upon us. In arts and entertainment, 1996 was marked by many a going (Horn & Horn lunchroom, Shakespeare on Wheels, the announcement of David Zinman's departure) and an important staying (the Lucas Collection). Bad guys (Jack Valenti with his Hollywood-friendly TV ratings system) were as likely to make news as angels (John Travolta in "Michael"), and personalities (the Michael Jackson marriage saga) got more attention than performances (Alanis Morissette's best-selling album). Here's a closer look at the year's highlights and low lights, courtesy of The Sun's critics.

Baltimore theater experienced some decided low points in 1996 -- chief among them the loss of Shakespeare on Wheels and the imperiled state of Arena Players. But it's a telling indication of the overall strength of area stages that charting the year reveals many more peaks than valleys.

To begin at the top, Baltimoreans were treated to one of the finest touring performances in years when Marian Seldes starred in Edward Albee's "Three Tall Women" at the Mechanic Theatre. The Mechanic faced serious troubles two seasons ago, not the )) least of which were artistically weak productions. But like "Three Tall Women," the caliber of the Mechanic's shows has risen noticeably since the theater's partnership with Jujamcyn Theaters and Productions.

Financially, the Mechanic's expanded board of directors has now raised $1.8 million of its $2 million goal to offset deficits and supplement production revenues. And, the board continues to explore sites and costs for a new theater that can meet the technological needs of megamusicals too large for the city's existing houses.

A few blocks away, the third week in December was the most music-filled in Center Stage's 33-year history, as a pair of world premiere musicals -- the sparkling, and possibly Broadway-bound, "Triumph of Love" and the continuing "Thunder Knocking on the Door: A Blusical Tale of Rhythm and the Blues" -- were performed on the theater's two stages.

Too loose a 'Lover'

Not all its 1996 world premieres were winners, however. "The Lover," Elizabeth Egloff's loose adaptation of Turgenev's "On the Eve," proved a little too loose; a polished production couldn't disguise holes in the script.

On a broader scale, the Baltimore Theatre Alliance, a nonprofit service organization, was launched at the civic-minded Everyman Theatre in August.

Embodying the cooperative spirit that has long characterized Baltimore's theater scene, the organization already lists about 300 individual members and 40 theaters, ranging from regional venues such as Center Stage and Olney Theatre Center to community, dinner and children's theaters.

The year's lowest ebb came when the University of Maryland Baltimore County eliminated Shakespeare on Wheels, its innovative summer touring theater that brought free performances to a quarter-million people during a 10-year period.

Shakespearean losses

Another UMBC program, the Maryland Stage Company, won acclaim when it took three short Beckett plays to the International Samuel Beckett Symposium and Festival in Strasbourg, France. But that's acclaim in a rarefied arena, as opposed to the widespread cultural good that Shakespeare on Wheels accomplished by introducing audiences of all ages, races and economic backgrounds to Shakespeare.

Summer Shakespeare suffered a further blow when financial woes forced the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival to cancel its third season. Sufficient funds have been raised, however, for the festival to continue, and even expand, its educational programs, and an abbreviated run of "Macbeth" is scheduled to open in May.

Another proud Baltimore institution was endangered when a $120,000 deficit threatened the existence of Arena Players, the country's oldest continuously operating African-American theater. Fund-raising and a reduced 1996-1997 season are now helping it stay afloat and prepare for a more secure future.

At other community theaters, last summer's Baltimore Playwrights Festival had its smallest lineup in years. But praiseworthy shows in the regular season included: Fell's Point Corner Theatre's playful rendition of David Ives' "All in the Timing"; Theatre Hopkins' splendid "The Millionairess," complete with both of George Bernard Shaw's endings; and the Spotlighters' visceral production of Sam Shepard's "Curse of the Starving Class."

In addition, Fell's Point Corner unveiled its new, larger, handicapped-accessible, first-floor theater. And a new company, Forum Theater, set up shop in the Washington Village building previously occupied by the short-lived Playwrights Theatre of Baltimore.

At the Theatre Project, several local efforts proved disappointing. "The Baltimore Project," created by Towson State University graduate students under the direction of Touchstone Theatre Ensemble of Bethlehem, Pa., was more an exercise than a finished work. And Mongrel Theatre's "Judith" was a muddled revisionist look at the story from the Bible's Apocrypha.

Uncharacteristically, a literary classic, Chekhov's "The Seagull," was the Theatre Project's loveliest 1996 offering.

The New Mexico production was actually a good fit for the experimental theater, not only because it was staged by avant-garde director Leonardo Shapiro, but also because of its theme of the lack of understanding of art that is new and different.

Theatergoers who traveled to Washington saw Shakespeare's three-part "Henry VI" distilled down to one gutsy, attention-grabbing evening at the Shakespeare Theatre.

Meanwhile, the Royal Shakespeare Company brought its beautiful, surrealistic "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to the Kennedy Center, which also presented a rare -- and towering -- appearance by legendary actress Uta Hagen in "Mrs. Klein."

'State Fair' fizzles

But the Kennedy Center's Broadway tryout of "State Fair," the stage version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's only original movie musical, turned out to be the weakest show in the R&H; canon. (The degree of its weakness could be gauged in comparison to the Royal National Theatre's stunning interpretation of the team's dark, tuneful "Carousel" at the Lyric Opera House.)

Washington's National Theatre, which has had only sporadic bookings in recent seasons, sprang back to life with "Whistle Down the Wind."

The first Andrew Lloyd Webber musical to premiere in the United States in 25 years, the Broadway-bound show features a melodic score, strong performances and eye-popping scenery in service of a peculiar story about children who find a stranger they believe is Jesus Christ.

Finally, on Broadway, two hip, hard-driving musicals -- "Rent" and "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk" -- injected welcome young blood into the tired Great White Way, which has been suffering from a long bout of revival-itis.

At the theater

Theatrical highs...

Area theaters unite to form the Baltimore Theatre Alliance, one of the most broad-based organizations of its kind in the country.

Marian Seldes delivers a prodigiously powerful performance in the lead role of "Three Tall Women" at the Mechanic Theatre.

Center Stage launches "Triumph of Love," a sparkling world premiere musical possibly headed for Broadway.

"Rent" and "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk" signal a younger, hip orientation for the Broadway musical. The Royal National Theatre brings its visually breathtaking production of "Carousel" to the Lyric Opera House.

And lows...

The University of Maryland Baltimore County closes Shakespeare on Wheels, its traveling summer theater that performed for a quarter-million people during a decade-long existence.

A deficit threatens to bring down the curtain on Arena Players, the country's oldest continuously operating African-American theater; fund-raising and a reduced theater season, however, are helping keep the doors open.

Money problems also plagued the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, which canceled its summer season, but managed to save its educational outreach programs and hopes to mount a production of "Macbeth" this spring.

"State Fair," a stage version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's only original movie musical, plays a pre-Broadway run at Washington's Kennedy Center, but proves to be the team's most featherweight musical and expires quickly on Broadway.

"The Lover," loosely based on Turgenev's "On the Eve," receives its world premiere at Center Stage, but a stunning production and fine performances are unable to compensate for holes in the script.

Pub Date: 12/29/96

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