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Festival's maturity becomes evident through teen and quarter-life crises


Wrapping up one of the richest Baltimore Playwrights Festivals in the event's 25-year history, the two coming-of-age plays that opened last weekend are the latest proof that this showcase of new work has itself come of age.

It's not just the writing that's impressive; there's expert handling of up-to-the-minute cyber details in Rich Espey's Hope's Arbor and imaginative flourishes in Ira Gamerman's Split. Both productions also feature notable performances, many by relative newcomers.

The title character in Hope's Arbor is the 17-year-old daughter of recently separated parents. Hope's parents, however, have been unable to tell her they've separated - just one example of the communication problems besetting the technologically tuned-in characters.

Espey underlines these problems by having most of the exchanges take place via cell phone, e-mail or instant messaging. Although it might seem difficult to make these cyberspace connections come alive on stage, at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, Espey and director Jayme Kilburn breathe drama into the play's wireless universe.

For starters, all six cast members are almost always on stage, emphasizing that proximity does not always increase understanding. And, at the end of the first act, five characters using portable e-mail devices recite a cacophony of instant messages.

With pressure from her mother to excel and from her nasty classmates to conform, Courtney Krimmell's believable Hope turns to the Internet for companionship. But in these technologically savvy times, her classmates can spy on her e-mails, and her parents can track her electronically.

A teen's awkward rites of passage are less private than ever, and yet, it's the one-on-one interactions between people that ease Hope through adolescence - a compassionate father (empathetically played by Mark Scharf) and a college student she meets on the Internet whose needs turn out to be as great as hers.

This ill-at-ease college student is depicted with stirring verisimilitude by Eric Berryman. But then, all of the actors bring edgy realism to their portrayals, especially Alison Buckley as Hope's relentless mother and Dina Epshteyn as a cruel classmate.

A few miles away, at Fell's Point Corner Theatre, the Uncommon Voices theater company has produced Gamerman's Split. A play about a twentysomething young man written by a twentysomething male playwright is less of a stretch than Espey's account of an adolescent girl, but Gamerman brings playful inventiveness to his tale of youthful angst.

In the lead role of Adam, a man trying to find himself, Steve Polites frequently addresses the audience, a task he performs with poise, while never stinting on Adam's overriding insecurity.

That insecurity is heightened by various imaginary friends, who range from a beer-swilling Vince Vaughn (played with Swingers-style crudeness by J. McCaul Baggett) to a vengeful Alaskan called Mr. Eskimo (Michael Carothers). Under Ian Belknap's direction, these supporting characters are broadly portrayed, as befits the overwrought fantasies of a confused adult-in-training.

Gamerman also makes clever use of double casting. For instance, along with Vaughn, Baggett also plays Adam's therapist - two characters whose advice is so diametrically opposed, they're like the devil and angel on a cartoon character's shoulders. In addition, to illustrate the therapist's theory that "your girlfriend is your mother," the same actress (Tori Katz) plays both.

Split also includes mini-dramas from Adam's past and future (with Carothers as a particularly comical young "Fantasy Adam"). The chief element of the set is a series of suspended light bulbs, perhaps symbolizing the inspiration and direction Adam lacks.

Though the imaginary characters are reminiscent of those by such esteemed forebears as Tony Kushner and Paula Vogel, the ending of Split seems abrupt. Even so, like Hope's Arbor, Split concludes on a note of hope, and so, for that matter, does the Baltimore Playwrights Festival's silver anniversary season.

"Hope's Arbor" continues through Aug. 27 at the Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul St. Tickets are $15. Call 410-752-1225 or visit spot "Split" continues through Aug. 27 at Fell's Point Corner, 251 S. Ann St. Tickets are $14. Call 410-655-4826.

Photographic memory

For more than four decades, the Spotlighters Theatre has put actors in the spotlight, and the theater's archives contain hundreds of photos to prove it. In many cases, however, the theater doesn't know who's who, which play is pictured or when it was staged. Spotlighters' fans can help fill in the blanks from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the theater, 817 St. Paul St. Duplicate photos will be for sale. Call 410-752-1225.

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