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Festival goes to boarding school

The 22nd annual Baltimore Playwrights Festival is winding up on a fairly high note with two plays that explore troubled relationships in diametrically opposed settings and styles.

Set at a girls boarding school, Rich Espey's Fifty-Fifty examines hypocrisy, sexual orientation and appearances vs. reality. And, it tackles these weighty themes with wit and humor.

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The action focuses on Thwaite Academy's new headmaster, a young man as insecure as he is ambitious. These seemingly clashing traits (nimbly conveyed by Jonas Grey, an actor with the flustered affability of Michael J. Fox) come to a head when the headmaster's former lover (dexterously played by Maynard Edwards) unexpectedly arrives at the school.

The ex-lover is determined to reveal all to the headmaster's wife (April Crowell) and to the community at large, a move that could shatter the headmaster's career and his already shaky marriage. Meanwhile, the ex-lover's current partner (Oscar Ceville), a teacher at Thwaite, is busy spreading the word that the school's founder was a closet lesbian.

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This may sound soap opera-ish, but Espey unfurls his plot complications with the sure hand of a farceur, and under Neal Freeman's direction at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, the pace never flags.

In addition to swift plotting and character development, the playwright also displays a knack for clever turns of phrase, best demonstrated in the sequences in which the headmaster mishears everything said to him. "Are you gay?" the headmaster hears with a jolt, when the actual question is an innocuous "Are you OK?"

The play's farcical qualities are further heightened by such elements as: the headmaster's penchant for dressing as a gigantic fuzzy green-and-yellow owl (the Thwaite mascot); one character's theory of universal bisexuality (i.e., that the difference between gay and straight is merely an issue of degree); a new brand of psychotherapy administered via Palm Pilot; and the over-the-top character of the school's villainous, meddling board chairman (Bethany Brown).

Yet despite its high jinks and flights of fancy, in the end, Fifty-Fifty offers a valid commentary on the importance of being true to yourself and your partner and the related dangers of pretending to be what you are not. This is Espey's second Playwrights Festival entry, and though some of its themes are similar to those in his 2001 Adam-and-Eve tale, Take Two, the current play is a more sophisticated and satisfying work, and one that demonstrates the growth and development this festival can foster.

Show times at the Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul St., are 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday. Tickets are $12. For more information, call 410-752-1225.

'Trenches'

About as far from farce as you can get, W. J. Goldie's Trenches takes place in the boarded-up apartment of a Jewish family still trying to eke out a living in Nazi-occupied Warsaw during World War II. The title refers not only to battle trenches, but also to the metaphorical trench that Meyer (Rodney Bonds), the family patriarch, has dug to separate himself from a grown son he disowned years ago.

What this son, Sammy (Gareth Kelly), did to deserve ostracism is kept secret for much of the play, though it's not difficult to guess that part of his sin was marrying outside the faith. When Sammy shows up at his parents' door, wounded and on the run, Meyer angrily retreats to the bedroom.

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Much of the play is a battle of wills between these two proud, stubborn men, with Deborah Newman, as Meyer's wife and Sammy's mother, trying to serve as peacemaker. Meyer, who sees the world as black and white, believes in the sanctity of family above all. Sammy, a resistance fighter who has painfully acclimated himself to a world mottled in unsettling grays, also believes in the pre-eminence of family, but the larger family - the family of man, whose essential goodness he's determined to keep the Nazis from annihilating.

Goldie, the son of a Holocaust survivor, writes with conviction, but he tends to spell out too much, both in the large revelatory speeches and in statements that unnecessarily underline his points.

At Fell's Point Corner Theatre, director Lance Lewman and set designer J. Hillyard have created a palpably claustrophobic milieu, whose terrors and oppressiveness are increased by the juxtaposition of mournful cello music (recorded by Seth Low) and flurries of gunfire.

The roles are competently played, with Meyer's obedient younger son and pregnant daughter-in-law given especially fresh and empathetic portrayals by Nathan Bell and Brandie Rocci. Goldie also includes a non-naturalistic character - a dybbuk (Tina Segovia), or ghost, who wafts through several scenes, lending an aura of mysticism that connects the play to Jewish folklore.

But the dybbuk serves another purpose as well. In the penultimate scene, when she finally speaks, this ghostly presence poignantly reinforces Goldie's overall theme of family and the bittersweet but reassuring notion that love and loved ones are never truly lost.

Show times at Fell's Point Corner, 251 S. Ann St., are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $12. For more information, call 410-276-7837.

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'Cry-Baby' writers

Fresh off their Tony Award win for Hairspray, writers Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan have been hired to adapt the screenplay of John Waters' 1990 movie, Cry-Baby, for the Broadway musical stage.

"I think it's very important when you're developing a new musical that you start with a good book. That should be your springboard, and Mark and Tom really honored John Waters in Hairspray and really understand his milieu," said lead producer Adam Epstein.

Meehan, a Tony winner for The Producers and Annie as well as Hairspray, is also working on musical adaptations of the movies Young Frankenstein and Rocky and is revising Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest musical, Bombay Dreams. O'Donnell, who made his Broadway debut with Hairspray, is a novelist, playwright, cartoonist, New Yorker contributor and former Saturday Night Live writer.

"Some people are going to say, 'Not again,'" O'Donnell acknowledged of his partnership with Meehan on another Waters musical. "But on the other hand, if it's a good story, the opportunity to do something beautiful and American and somehow subversive - how could I resist?"

And, O'Donnell pointed out, the two projects have a central textual difference: "If Hairspray was a Cinderella paradigm, this is Romeo and Juliet, only with a James Dean juvenile delinquent - a classic American icon. Messing with that stuff is always an honor."

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Epstein said he's currently auditioning composers and lyricists for Cry-Baby, and while he's "not ruling anybody out" - including the Hairspray team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman - "everybody under the sun is under consideration." The producer hopes to have the new show's songwriters lined up by mid-September. "We could have an Act One by the first of the year, if not a little before," he said.


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