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Festival plays try something new

Two of the latest Baltimore Playwrights Festival offerings share an admirable trait - neither falls into the naturalistic trap of so many modern American plays. Unlike those standard-issue kitchen-sink dramas or sitcoms, one of the new festival productions takes place in hell, and the other - a quartet of one-acts - features everything from talking birds to the physical incarnations of the elements in a T.S. Eliot poem.

Of the two productions, Steve Klepper's Hell, Inc., at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, has the virtue of a simpler - and more coherent - premise. Satan (an engagingly smarmy Mark Scharf) has decided he wants the shareholders, a k a, the souls, of heaven to elect him their director. To craft his campaign, he enlists one of hell's denizens, a former marketing executive named Doreen (a business-like Janise Bonds), a former whiz at selling alcohol and tobacco.

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Klepper's first full-length script, Hell, Inc. plays like a cross between an extended comedy sketch and a theological debate. There's some amusing logic underlying the arguments, but there's too much talk and not enough action - until the character of Jesus (a laid-back, but self-assured Jed Duvall) challenges Satan to a poker game late in the second act.

Director Deborah Newman's staging, which repeatedly strands actors in the four corners of the stage, does little to liven things up. The show's best performances (those of Scharf, Duvall and Jessica Long as a Valley Girl-ish Cassandra, prophetess of doom and Satan's personal secretary) emphasize the edginess of the material. The worst (that of FUZZ Roark, who mumbles his way through a portrayal of Niccolo Machiavelli, Satan's chief adviser) renders the text largely unintelligible.

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The play has a bit of a surprise ending, introducing a note of hope after an evening of jaded musings and dark forebodings. Setting a play in the netherworld puts Klepper in good company. After all, George Bernard Shaw had considerable success with the Don Juan in Hell sequence in Man and Superman. But clever as it may be at times, Hell, Inc. ultimately has more in common with late-night college bull sessions than with its exalted predecessor.

Show times at the Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 7 p.m. Sundays, through July 26. Tickets are $12. For more information, call 410-752-1225.

Playlets

Cybele Pomeroy's View Thru Quarter Pane, at the Chesapeake Center for the Creative Arts, is a series of four playlets - most are too short to qualify as one-acts - linked by the theme of love. At least that's what the program note says. The theme isn't readily apparent from the material, especially in the case of a sketch about the Marx Brothers (though presumably this is a demonstration of brotherly love).

The evening begins with a Pinter-esque playlet in which a pair of squabbling humans are contrasted with a pair of birds, who return annually to bill and coo on the ledge of a skyscraper. Next come the Marx Brothers, seen here initiating their youngest brother, Herbert (Zeppo), into the act.

After intermission, there's an excessively arty sketch in which four actresses embody references from Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock - from the women who "come and go/Talking of Michelangelo" to the singing mermaid Eliot himself appropriated from John Donne. Though former English majors may find all of this mildly amusing, it's an exercise that does little to illuminate the poem.

The closing playlet appears to be an example of maternal love, extending beyond the grave. The interplay between the character of the deceased mother and her grown son has touching moments, but too much of the sketch gets caught up in a joke about the son's peculiar first name - "Feetus," chosen by his immigrant mother, who didn't know the meaning, or the correct spelling, of "fetus."

Under the playwright's direction, much of the acting falls flat. Exceptions include Luke Woods in the dual roles of a bird and Groucho Marx, and Samantha Yon's sweet depictions of the other lovebird and the fiancee of the awkwardly named Feetus.

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Speaking of Feetus, if the playwright is going to make an issue of the dangers of misspelling, it would help if the program didn't misspell Eliot and Michelangelo. The program also claims that each of the pieces represents a season of the year; that, however, is an even broader leap than the love theme.

Show times at the Chesapeake Center for the Creative Arts, 194 Hammonds Lane, Brooklyn Park, are 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays, through Sunday. Tickets are $15. For more information, call 410-636-6597.

No 'Follies'

The one-week run of The Will Rogers Follies, which was to have inaugurated the new Broadway Show Club at the Lyric Opera House on July 29, has been canceled. The cancellation stemmed largely from a desire to avoid a coincidental overlap between the professional touring production, which stars Larry Gatlin, and a community theater revival of the same show, scheduled for July 25-Aug. 10, at Cockpit in Court, the summer theater at the Essex campus of the Community College of Baltimore County.

"We just made a decision that it isn't good for the show and it isn't good for the theaters to have it running in two places at the same time," said Joan A. Alper, one of the principals in TheatreDreams, the company that created the Broadway Show Club. "We ultimately said this is not a good way to come into Baltimore, competing with a community theater."

Instead, the Broadway Show Club will launch its season with the previously announced revival of Chicago (Oct. 28-Nov. 2). Alper said theatergoers who purchased tickets to The Will Rogers Follies will receive full refunds, but will be able to keep the free Show Club memberships that accompanied those tickets. For more information, call 410-685-5086.


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