The Baltimore Playwrights Festival is, by nature, a risky enterprise. New plays, after all, are untested commodities, and in a community-theater festival with a reputation for taking chances with new actors, directors and designers -- as well as playwrights -- the anything-can-happen stakes become infinitely higher.
As a critic, I don't go to these plays looking for the next Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller (although, of course, I'd be delighted if I found him). I go looking for new talent, for promise, for the spark that deserves encouragement.
In the past few years, that spark has seemed to glow a little less brightly. But there were a number of things to cheer about in the 1998 festival, now in its final week.
Although none of the scripts was a pure gem, there was some impressive writing. First-time festival playwright John W. Teahan showed a strong sense of theatricality in "The Bards of Scranton," his play about two X-rated magazine writers who are considerably less adept at dealing with love in real life. Teahan made liberal use of direct audience address and demonstrated a flair for comedy, though his rather daring attempt to inject a fantasy sequence near the end proved heavy-handed.
Most of the five one-acts in this year's festival were also comedies. The most neatly crafted was "Something Else Entirely," a clever play about a woman who hears voices. The playwright, Paul Sambol, was one of two writers to have two scripts produced in the same festival. Both of Sambol's plays dealt with the supernatural, a subject he approached with an amusing dose of skepticism.
The other two-play author was Mark Scharf, a festival veteran. Though Scharf showed a knack for breezy comedy in his one-act, "Like White on Rice," he tackled decidedly more difficult subject matter in "The Mean Reds," a play about a loving husband whose alcoholic wife leaves him after he helps her through recovery.
In this domestic drama, Scharf resisted the easy route of turning the wife into an out-and-out villain, but at the same time, he gave full vent to the husband's anger and resentment (though these were somewhat muted in actor Russell Wooldridge's performance). The play's primary shortcoming was an oversimplified, cheerful ending. The playwright, however, is still tinkering with "The Mean Reds," which has a reading at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., tonight.
Anger was also the theme of Jim Cary's "Walk Like a Man," a play that was basically a character study of a macho, John Wayne type, whose suppositions about life are being shattered. Cary's play was so intense, it was difficult to watch at times. And director Barry Feinstein's production featured one of the most powerful performances in the history of this festival -- Mark Squirek's no-holds-barred portrayal of the seething main character.
There were several other inspired performances in the festival as well. On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, Lindy Davis was a hoot as the distracted, anxious woman who hears voices in "Something Else Entirely." And, on the same bill of one-acts, Anita Gutschick displayed an endearing, Woody Allen-esque neuroticism in the role of a perpetual worrier in Delores Moran's "Fear and Sheep," a monologue that was part of Moran's collection of short pieces jointly titled "Perilous Encounters."
The 17th annual Playwrights Festival was also notable for inaugurating two theater companies -- the Howard Theatre Company, the festival's first representation in Howard County, and Uncommon Voices Theatre Company, a company formed, in part, because of its founders' belief in the festival's concluding entry, Tim Marks' "The Fever of Warmth and Darkness."
In addition, the Howard Theatre Company's double bill of "Perilous Encounters" and "Something Else Entirely" was the debut production at the Howard County Center for the Arts' new Black Box Theatre, a venue eventually intended to offer more varied staging options than the standard proscenium setup.
Is the quality of the festival on the rise? Granted, not every offering was a winner. Arthur Laupus' "Sounds of Silents" crossed the line from comedy to the ridiculous, and Marks' "Fever of Warmth and Darkness" was weakly written and suffered from a lack of tension. (For that matter, as typified by "Fever," scripts about angry and/or dissatisfied white, mostly middle-aged males dominated this year's festival -- a theme that suggests the need for a little more diversity of focus.)
Yet for the most part, I'd like to think that after 17 years, the festival has developed a process -- which includes readings throughout the regular season -- that's effective at identifying interesting scripts and matching them with the right directors and casts. At least, that's what happened in many cases this year.
That process, incidentally, is already under way for the next festival. The script submission deadline is Sept. 30. For information, call 410-276-2153.
Meanwhile, "The Fever of Warmth and Darkness," the last play in this summer's festival, continues at Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St., at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $10 and $11. Call 410-788-1489.
Pub Date: 8/31/98