With half of the plays in this summer's Baltimore Playwrights Festival by returning writers, it's especially refreshing to report the discovery of a newcomer with a talent for both character development and thematic heft.
Paul Bogas' The Throne Builders, produced by Uncommon Voices at Mobtown Players, is a play about race relations, family, friendship and loyalty. The protagonist, Myers Thomas, is an accomplished African-American woodwright. But the time is the mid-1940s and the place is the Deep South, where a black carpenter can't get paid work, much less a license to do it.
Myers has one major woodworking job to his credit, however, a task he accomplished by working on the sly for a less-skilled white Jewish carpenter named Howard Seligman, who acted as front man. Now Howard shows up on Myers' doorstep again with a tempting, showy job - the choir loft for a downtown cathedral.
A proud man struggling to support his small family by working as a farmer, Myers initially turns Howard down. But eventually Myers is unable to resist.
Barnett Lloyd plays Myers as a man whose self-respect sometimes turns into hubris and jealousy. He competes with his son Lincoln (Troy Hopper) as if he thinks he, too, were still 18. And, his devotion to his work threatens his marriage when he acquiesces to Howard's demand that he keep the job secret, even from his worried wife (Selina Showard-Brown).
Yet for the most part, Myers has adjusted to what he believes is the only way to survive in the segregated South. His son, however, finds Myers' survival strategy demeaning, and the cracks that Myers' covert carpentry cause in his family take more than mortises and tenons to rejoin.
Steve Lichtenstein's seemingly levelheaded Howard also thinks he has figured out how to negotiate his way through prejudiced small-town Southern life. But as the action progresses, it becomes clear that Howard has a lot to learn from Myers. The conversations between these two characters, and between Myers and his son, are loaded with tough issues but rarely seem didactic. And when tempers flare, the anger is earned.
The production also features a noteworthy performance by Stephen Rourke, who is appropriately oily and threatening as the church's hypocritical reverend. And Carol Oles' set design - with its three omnipresent arches - never lets the audience forget the impact of this church commission on the central characters.
Miriam Bazensky's direction tended to lag on opening night, and the play has one scene too many; it would be stronger without the final exchange between Myers and his wife.
Still, The Throne Builders marks the introduction of a promising new writer and makes the prospect of Bogas' next festival entry - Partners at Fell's Point Corner Theatre next month - all the more enticing.
Show times at Mobtown Players, 3600 Clipper Mill Road, are 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays, through July 25. Tickets are $12. For more information, call 410-655-4826.
"It's so tawdry and terrible and everyone's having such a great time," is the way the character of the American writer describes Weimar Berlin in the musical Cabaret. That description could also be applied to the Maryland Arts Festival's production of this Kander and Ebb musical - except, that is, for the "terrible" part. To the contrary, this is a slick production in almost every respect.
Director Gary Hiel has chosen an approach that falls somewhere between the rather glitzy German Expressionist style used by director Harold Prince in the show's original 1966 Broadway staging, and the seedy, heroin-chic interpretation adopted by Sam Mendes three decades later.
In Hiel's rendition, Michael Stebbins' Kit Kat Klub Emcee is bare-chested under his tuxedo jacket and wears cadaverous-looking white makeup. He haunts much of the action like a foreboding specter (but one with, unfortunately, a German accent so thick, it obscures many of the lyrics).
Costume designer Georgia O. Baker, however, dresses the Kit Kat chorus girls in skivvies that are considerably brighter and newer than the torn undies sported by their counterparts in Mendes' version.
Audiences who know only Bob Fosse's 1972 film probably don't realize that the musical, which has a book by Joe Masteroff, is an account of two romances, not just one. The familiar one is that of Kit Kat headliner Sally Bowles and American writer Clifford Bradshaw - appealingly portrayed here by relative newcomers Catherine Brookman (a student at the Carver Center for Arts and Technology) and John Parry.
The second romance is that of two senior citizens, Clifford's German landlady and her Jewish sweetheart. At the Maryland Arts Festival, it is this couple, depicted by Nancy Tarr Hart and Dan Herrel, whose story and duets - "It Couldn't Please Me More" and "Married" - touch the heart.
Choreographer Paula Lynn elicits adept ensemble work from the cast, whether the number is jaunty ("Don't Tell Mama") or direful ("Tomorrow Belongs to Me"). And designer Daniel Ettinger's set positions all of the action within the wrought-iron framework of the Kit Kat Klub - a choice that, like the rest of this dexterous but dark production, reminds us that, if "life is a cabaret," this particular one is a scary place, indeed.
Cabaret is performed in Stephens Hall on the campus of Towson University, 7900 York Road. Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and July 22, and 2 p.m. July 18, through July 24. Tickets are $23-$25. For more information, call 410-704-2787.