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Baltimore solstice: Looking for bright lights in the darkest days of the year

Daniel Ettinger's designs for Agatha Christie’s "Murder on the Orient Express" include one with three sleeping compartments and five other sets.
Daniel Ettinger's designs for Agatha Christie’s "Murder on the Orient Express" include one with three sleeping compartments and five other sets.(Teresa Castracane Photography / HANDOUT)

There is so much darkness, especially at the winter solstice, we naturally look for light, and you can find it just about everywhere, even with all the violence and corruption, and trash tumbling through the streets.

I went out in the cold night and found holiday lights on the railings and doors of several rowhouses in South Baltimore, West Baltimore and in the north-central neighborhood of Remington.

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In Remington, I spotted a neon pink flamingo in a second-floor window on the way to the corner bar, Three Miles House. Outside Three Miles House was a sidewalk planter made from an old claw-foot bathtub. Inside Three Miles House, a clean, well-lighted place where karaoke is bliss, a man on a stool sang a Hank Williams tune, and he sounded sweet as an old choirboy.

I saw a woman I presumed to be among the homeless sweeping the sidewalk and gutter in front of her tent near Guilford Avenue in the early-evening darkness.

Then, on the phone, a priest from Annapolis told me how his parishioners recently stepped up to get a homeless man and woman out of a tent in a campsite along Gwynns Falls, on the southern edge of the city, and into an apartment in Mondawmin. I found light abundant in that.

I heard about a court ruling that could kill the Affordable Care Act and health insurance for millions of Americans, the dark wish of the law’s selfish, narrow-minded opponents.

But then I heard Steny Hoyer’s speech to the House of Representatives on the need to impeach the president of the United States and found light in a long-serving congressional rep’s commitment to his oath.

I went dark again while reading emails from readers on the crisis in Baltimore. The city is closing in on the fifth year of awful because of a level of gun violence we have not seen since the 1990s. Even a day of 10 shootings no longer seems shocking. It’s right there, in the everyday of Baltimore, and in the minds of worried Baltimoreans.

The other part of the crisis is lack of leadership and vision, with two mayors forced from office, and a third who decided not to seek re-election, in the last decade.

“The city was not proactive in saving Harborplace,” a friend notes in an email. “It is time for new blood to take over the city. A city in crisis needs an entire facelift.”

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Another wrote: “I have been so sad about the fact that no one in the city is thinking big anymore. Can you imagine if the next mayor decided to spend the money to make Lexington Market a destination? Suppose it was an architecturally stunning space? It just seems like another missed opportunity.”

So there you go: A pile-up of frustrations and low expectations about city and country as winter arrives and we close out another year.

You have to savor the light you find in dark times.

I attended the Mathopoly competition at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. It was a three-hour math challenge for about 75 fifth-graders from 13 city elementary schools. The kids were focused and excited, their parents watched with pride, and college-bound Poly students from the highly-regarded Ingenuity Project served as scorekeepers and role models. It was a bright moment on a dreary, rainy day.

Now here is the slice of light from this long walk I’m most eager to share with you today: Daniel Ettinger’s sets for Everyman Theatre’s production of “Murder On The Orient Express.”

The sets are as much feats of engineering as works of art, and as much the star of the show as Bruce Randolph Nelson, who is superb as Agatha Christie’s famous detective Hercule Poirot.

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Not only are the sets gorgeous, with Moorish accents for an Istanbul hotel and Art Deco, black-and-gold interiors for the train, but they change frequently and seamlessly, from railroad platform to club car to sleeping compartments to corridor to radio office.

What’s remarkable are the constraints Ettinger faced in a theater with tight wing spaces. His sets move on computer-controlled decks — upstage and down, stage left and right — with less than 2 inches to spare when they are parked offstage. Because of this, actors do not wait in the wings; they make their entrances from hallways and dressing rooms.

“It was a major feat of engineering that he was able to pull off the many looks of the Orient Express,” says Vincent Lancisi, Everyman’s artistic director. “Everything is wedged onto the stage with one and a half inches of room between sliding panels, automated set pieces and sleeping cars motoring downstage in full view of the audience. The actors have to do a dance to avoid moving scenery as there is no wing space not in use.

“Daniel is our secret weapon. He creates Broadway looks in an off-Broadway environment. Baltimore is lucky to have him.”

Rasean Davonte Johnson’s projection designs and the music and sound work of Pornchanok Kanchanabanca also deserve props here. This is a gem of a production, and the play’s run has been extended. You come away from it with the same feeling you get when Lamar Jackson and the Ravens win with panache, or when Marin Alsop conducts the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to its peak in Beethoven’s 7th, or when you hear a blissful man sing a Hank Williams song in a neighborhood bar — that in all the darkness, you can find greatness and light and even hope.

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