'Love for Words' visits Shakespeare's deathbed


Baltimore playwright Kimberley Lynne definitely has a thing for Shakespeare.

Of more than a half dozen plays she's had produced locally, at least three - including a brief sketch staged by the Women's Project - are about the writer or his work.

"Love for Words," the most serious-minded of these, is the current production by the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival. Lynne has made some revisions since this biographical drama premiered at AXIS Theatre in 1997. But though the play is often witty and entertaining, its flaws are magnified by the inevitable comparison to the Bard.

Except for a short introductory scene set in 1604, most of the play takes place in 1616, when Shakespeare, competently played by James Kinstle (the festival's new artistic director), is on his deathbed. Haunting him is a character identified merely as "The Muse" (lithe, impish Andrea Maida), who implores the dying and initially uninterested playwright to consider his place in posterity.

In the play's most amusing device, the Muse shows Shakespeare various figures from the future, ranging from the education director of the Folger Shakespeare Library to a pompous professor, who is part of the contingent convinced that Shakespeare's plays were actually written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

As these characters suggest, the debate about the authorship of the plays is primarily of academic interest. The emotional core of Lynne's drama concerns the relationship between Shakespeare and his older daughter, Susanna.

Though Bethany Hoffman's slovenly and surly Susanna initially appears to have traveled to her father's bedside merely to make sure she receives her inheritance, as the play progresses, her respect for his writing is revealed. And, when her father's affection for her becomes evident in the end, we get a view of Shakespeare as a human being, instead of merely a historical figure. (Lynne's imagination can take considerable license, since so little is known about Shakespeare's life.)

Fleshing out the relationship between father and daughter also allows Lynne to interpolate a few of the play's cleverer touches, such as an explanation for the seven-year gap between Shakespeare's death and the publication of his plays, as well as a nice joke about the origin of the inscription on his tombstone.

With Shakespeare's deathbed dominating designer Konstantin Tikhonov's set, director Tony Tsendeas is unable to do much to vary the action, although Maida romps on and around the bed with a dancer's nimble grace. In addition, she and her three apprentice fairies occasionally appear behind a gauzy rear curtain.

Lynne's script is peppered with quotations from Shakespeare - the three fairies quote the witches in "Macbeth"; Susanna quotes Lear's daughter, Cordelia, etc. But these borrowed passages only accentuate the disparity between the real thing and Lynne's efforts. Tom Stoppard - who wrote about Shakespeare at the start of the Bard's career in the screenplay for "Shakespeare in Love" and created an entire play, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead," about a pair of minor characters in "Hamlet" - may be able to approximate Shakespeare's genius and originality, but few others measure up.

The Baltimore Shakespeare Festival performs at Zion Church of Baltimore City, 400 E. Lexington St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with matinees at 10 a.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $10-$15. Call 410-481-7328.

Center Stage open house

Center Stage's annual open house, scheduled for 2 p.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, will be a little different this year, providing visitors with a glimpse at two major changes at the regional theater.

First are the theater's physical renovations. The box office, which now has a separate entrance, has been expanded to five windows. The seats in the first-floor Pearlstone Theater have been refurbished with new springs, cushions and purple upholstery.

Changes to the lobby include brightly colored carpeting, a permanent gift shop and tables and chairs where patrons can enjoy beverages and light fare, which will now be sold at both the first-floor and mezzanine bars. Seating capacity in the mezzanine has been doubled, and the first-floor ladies' room has also been greatly enlarged.

The second major change is the arrival of the theater's new managing director, Tom Pechar, former managing director of the Seattle Children's Theatre. Guests will have a chance to chat informally with Pechar from 2:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Finally, at 3 p.m. the Child's Play program will demonstrate some activities available in this subscription for children ages 4-10 whose parents attend selected Saturday matinees. This year, Child's Play will focus on the basic components of theater, from storytelling to design.

Admission to the open house is free. Center Stage is at 700 N. Calvert St. For more information, call 410-685-3200.

Talented kids

The Baltimore Children's Theatre will present its inaugural talent show competition at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Howard County Center for the Arts, 8510 High Ridge Road, Ellicott City. The program will feature child magicians, singers, dancers, comedians and musicians, who will compete for prizes. Tickets are $10. For more information call 410-203-1757.

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