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Much ado about focus on the Bard

The Baltimore Sun

As the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival prepares to celebrate its 15th anniversary with the production of Twelfth Night that opens Friday, it is grappling with major decisions that could change its fortunes.

After a decade and a half, the company has yet to establish a real foothold in Baltimore. It continues to struggle artistically and, as a result, doesn't attract a large audience. Many productions have been emotionally remote, or earnest and plodding. Directors have cast skilled actors but have failed to make the best use of their talents.

By summer's end, the company will hire a new artistic director, or chief administrator. If the board chooses the right person, the quality of shows is likely to improve, and the Shakespeare Festival could finally join the ranks of the city's major arts groups.

Choose wrong, and the company could flounder or, worse, continue to exist in the artistic twilight zone it has occupied for much of its existence.

The new artistic director also will decide if the festival will mount more contemporary works and fewer shows by the Bard.

"This is a transitional time for us," says Marilyn Powell, who next week will complete her term as the festival's chairwoman of the board of directors. "Sometimes, a huge sea change like this can put you on the path you need to follow."

The mere fact that the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival has lasted for 15 years is an accomplishment, given a climate in which most performing groups have life spans shorter than fruit flies. The festival draws an audience of roughly 15,000 each year, has an operating budget of about $500,000 and remains reliably in the black, according to Nicole Epp, the troupe's next chairwoman of the board. This summer, two shows will be staged in close succession for the first time: Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew, which begins performances July 18.

Staging Shakespeare can be a double-edged rapier: The classic comedies and dramas appeal to audiences and corporate sponsors, but it's awfully hard to do the shows well. The obstacles are especially daunting for small troupes, such as the Shakespeare Festival.

A look at the barriers in the festival's path, and its efforts to overcome them, can help explain why audiences nationwide see so much bad Shakespeare during the summer.

Before a theater troupe can hire professional performers, it must have a contract with the actors' union. Shrew, for instance, will showcase the talents of Dawn Ursula and Bruce Nelson, both company members of the well-respected Everyman Theatre. But the terms of that contract limit the hours that a cast can rehearse, and they are particularly stringent for small-budget companies.

When asked about those restrictions, Laura Hackman, who is directing Twelfth Night, made a face. "I only get them for 26 hours a week," she says.

Twenty-six hours might be sufficient - barely - to whip a modern show into shape. But it's not enough time for actors to master the complexities of Shakespearean dialogue, let alone to develop nuanced character interpretations.

In addition, the Bard's plays have huge casts and often clock in at three hours. (Both Shrew and Twelfth Night have 14 characters each, plus several walk-on roles.) This leaves directors less time to work individually with performers.

It's also no surprise that some of the festival's most accomplished productions so far have been contemporary works. For instance, Raine Bode's production of Bertolt Brecht's translation of Antigone this winter was visually stunning and had a cohesive point of view.

Given these difficulties, why bother with the Bard? As Epp points out, "Shakespeare still brings in the dollars."

It's not easy to raise money for new or experimental productions, especially in tight times. But money is available to fund H amlet or As You Like It or Julius Caesar in particular, because these shows are perceived as educational and family-friendly.

Considering the constraints, Epp thinks her company has accomplished wonders.

"We're in a good place financially and artistically," she says. "The thing we're the most proud of is the quality of our productions."

The festival's list of "best hits" would include Hackman's inventive, aerial staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream in 2006. J. Wynn Rousuck, The Sun's former theater critic, wrote that the production "is apt to make even the most skeptical believe in fairies."

Still, the board members know that more shows have to rise to that level. When James Kinstle, who had lead the troupe for eight years, stepped down April 1 to pursue his acting career full time, theater officials decided to embark on a national search for his replacement. (Kinstle continues to have close ties with the festival; in July, he will star in Shrew as the hyper-macho Petruchio.)

More than 75 applicants, from both coasts and the Midwest, have been narrowed to three finalists, Powell says, and the board expects to choose the new artistic director in August. That appointment will determine which plays will be performed in the future.

"Will we one day be known as 'The Baltimore Festival that Occasionally Performs Shakespeare'?" Powell asks jokingly.

"I don't know. That would be an interesting name."

She adds, "We have to ask ourselves over and over who we are and what we're doing. We want to be a theater about the idea of Shakespeare, not just as the author of these wonderful plays, but as a man of his time. Shakespeare was a real flash point in the history of the theater.

"If you think about it that way, it could open up all kinds of different pathways for us to explore."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

Twelfth Night runs Friday-July 13 in the meadow at Evergreen House, 4545 N. Charles St. Showtimes vary. Tickets are $15-$25. Call 410-366-8596 or go to baltimoreshakespeare.org.

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