Something might be rotten in the state of Denmark, but the future is looking brighter for Baltimore Shakespeare Festival.
The festival, which has a new artistic director, a revamped mission and - in its current production of Wittenberg, a modern day "prequel" to H amlet - one of the strongest shows the troupe has mounted in years.
For much of the year, the troupe has taken a performing hiatus, while it tended to administrative matters, such as hiring Michael Carleton as the artistic director to replace the departing James Kinstle. Wittenberg is the first major production of the festival's 2008-2009 season, and it's tempting to see it as a fresh, new beginning.
Though the troupe is about to celebrate its 16th birthday, annual attendance is less than 10,000, indicating that the company has yet to establish a firm foothold in the Baltimore theater market.
"I think the festival is at a tipping point," Carleton says. "We have not yet grown into the kind of company that this city wants and needs."
The 45-year-old Carleton, who previously ran a theater in Cape May, N.J., moved to Baltimore and began his new job on Oct. 6. Two months later, the economy crashed.
"Fortunately," he says, "one of the things I'm good at is keeping costs down."
This year, of course, the festival saved money by staying dark much of the time. Last year, the troupe staged five productions in its regular season; this year, it will stage just two. Wittenberg closes June 14, and twelve days later, Hamlet will open in the meadow outside Evergreen House.
Carleton intentionally juxtaposed the Bard's great tragedy and the intellectual comedy written by David Davalos. Wittenberg takes place at the university where Hamlet is a student, and the play imagines that two of the Danish prince's professors - Martin Luther and Dr. Faust - are battling for their prized pupil's allegiance. Off stage, the romantic triangle in Denmark between Hamlet's father, mother and villainous uncle comes to a crisis. The play ends with the prince learning of his father's death.
Both works deal with questions of reason and faith, fate versus free will, so scheduling them back-to-back creates a dialogue from which theatergoers can benefit.
"In the future," Carleton says, "I'd like to start putting together thematically related seasons."
Starting with the 2009-2010 season, the festival will stage a fall production indoors at St. Mary's, plus two open-air production each summer. The troupe will also continue to stage its annual holiday and teen programs.
Audiences can expect to see fewer works by the sage from Stratford-upon-Avon, though Carleton says the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival will continue to justify its name by staging one or two of the Bard's plays each season.
"I'd like a third of our season to be Shakespeare," he says. "I'd like a third to be other classics - works by Chekhov, or the Greeks, or maybe Tennessee Williams." (This fall, the troupe will stage a new production of Dracula.)
Carleton says the final third of each season will be dedicated to new works such as Wittenberg that were inspired by the classics.
"I don't want to do only Shakespeare," Carleton says. "I want to do what Shakespeare did. In 1598, he was a new playwright. He wrote stories based on classical plots and themes that he stole from existing works."
Partly, Carleton's reasons are pragmatic. It's not easy for a small troupe with a limited budget to pull off creditable productions of the Bard's works. Even when these shows succeed artistically, they're expensive.
"The Shakespeare play with the smallest cast might be Macbeth," Carleton says. "There are only 19 people on stage, instead of 40. Wittenberg, in contrast, has a cast of four."
Carleton has a found a way to increase the rehearsal time for his actors, which should improve the quality of the performances. Even so, he says, "there's not a single Shakespeare festival in the world that performs only Shakespeare."
But he thinks there's a niche in Baltimore's theater world that the festival is ideally situated to fill.
"There are three professional, nonprofit theater companies in Baltimore," he says.
"Center Stage does a mix of things, and Everyman does mostly newer plays, but there aren't any theater companies who focus on solid productions of the classics. I think there's an audience in Baltimore for the kind of work we're trying to do, and I'm excited and happy to be here."
If you go
Wittenberg runs through June 14 at St. Mary's Outreach Center, 3900 Roland Ave. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $25. Call 410-366-8596 or go to baltimoreshakespeare.org.