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Arts and Culture (Theatre Reviews)

Compass Rose is the first theater to produce this edgy drama

“Why try something new when we already know what we like?” asks the conservative character in Compass Rose’s current production, Another Day On Willow Street.
    “Because,” says founding artistic director Lucinda Merry-Browne, “the future of theater depends on new works.”
    So Annapolis audiences are the first ever to see this new work by acclaimed playwright, author and actor Frank Anthony Polito. Chosen for its unique structure and strong themes, this edgy drama about two relationships in crisis leading up to the 9/11 terrorist attacks considers the themes of sacrifice and commitment against a backdrop of domestic stress, isolation and jealousy.
     Ian (Ric Andersen) and Stacy (Renata Plecha) have it all: a townhome on Willow Street, his Wall Street banking career and her early retirement from publishing to have their baby. Only problem is, she’s not ready and he’s too busy enjoying his role as sole breadwinner to indulge her fears. Going stir-crazy at home, she makes a friend at the park. Mark (Jonathan Lee Taylor) is a struggling actor who rents the studio next door and is living as a geographic bachelor separated from his love, Paul (Anthony Bosco), a Boston-based lawyer. Paul, who is nursing his dying mother, is pressuring Mark to help him fulfill her dying wish to see them married. Only problem is, Mark still hasn’t come out to his parents.
    There are a lot of phone calls and domestic squalls, crossed signals and crossed paths between unacquainted neighbors, Starbucks and even some gratuitous gay phone sex as each couple hashes out the same issues in parallel conversations that echo each other. The main message, stated twice, is that, “people put things off and put things off and put things off only to realize their lives are over.” Not an original thought, but one worth repeating.
     Set and lighting are minimal, characters clichéd and dialogue circular. Yet there is some strong acting. Most notable are Bosco and Taylor, both Equity actors who were cast as last minute replacements with just one week to learn the show. Each fleshes out his role, to the extent the script allows, with finesse. Plecha, last seen as the nurse in Compass Rose’s Romeo and Juliet, is also convincing as the reluctant housewife.
    However, Andersen, last seen as Bob Ewell in Compass Rose’s To Kill a Mockingbird, is wooden and one-dimensional. There is more chemistry between Stacy and the gay neighbor than there is between husband and wife.  
     From a technical perspective, the blocking is awkward, often requiring downstage actors to turn their backs on the audience to carry on conversations with those upstage.
    Other problems come with the script. Characters’ names are barely used the first half of the show, making it hard to identify them. The play has a general flatness, and the roller-coaster of a pseudo dramatic arc culminates in a confusing climax, tidy resolution and abrupt ending.
    This is no instant classic, but it will make you think about the transience of life and the fragility of love.
    Adult themes make this show inappropriate for ages under 16, and runtime is advertised as 75 minutes with no intermission, yet opening night ran an extra 15 minutes.

Director: Lucinda Merry-Browne. Costumes: Julie Bays. Lights: Chris Timko.
Playing thru May 31. Th 7pm; FSa 8pm; Sa May 24 2pm and 8pm; Su and Sa May 31 2pm. Compass Rose Theater, Annapolis. $35 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-980-6662; www.compassrosetheater.org.

Dignity Players exits stage left field, imagination amok

For nine years, Dignity Players has mounted quality productions on the themes of social justice and equality — morality plays that inspire with occasional forays into seriocomedy — brilliant, thought-provoking stuff. And now, as Monty Python would say, for something completely different: a hilarious send-up of John Buchan’s classic thriller The 39 Steps, which became a 1935 Alfred Hitchcock hit. Like a beloved professor playing a prank on the last day of school, Dignity delivers an unforgettable couple of hours of pure pleasure, with a gag a minute and romance to boot.
    The story follows the adventures of Richard Hannay (Ty Cobb), who leads a boring life until he meets a woman with a thick German accent, Annabella Schmidt (Rebecca Ellis), who says she’s a spy. He takes her home where she is murdered, and soon a mysterious organization called The 39 Steps is hot on his trail in a manhunt across the British Isles that climaxes in a death-defying finale.
    This film noir classic has enjoyed a renaissance of late as a riotous blend of virtuoso performances in which three of the four actors portray 25 roles ranging from walk-ons to leads. It sounds impossible, yet with inventive stagecraft it’s not only possible but preferable to the traditional production. There’s Chaplinesque physical comedy, cartoonish pranks, puppetry, shadow play, mime, a train-top chase scene — and references to every Hitchcock blockbuster.
    From the opening scene at a Vaudevillian performance featuring The Amazing Mr. Memory (Duncan Hood) and his manager (Eric Lund), these two actors (billed simply as Clown 1 and Clown 2) never take a break. No sooner does the imperiled Annabella appeal to Richard for protection than the clowns are lurking outside his apartment as the two most delightful trench-coated spies since Boris and Natasha. Each time Richard glances out the window, they skulk and slink into view carrying their own full-sized lamppost, reappearing throughout the show as cops, businessmen, inn keepers, farmers, Hitler sympathizers, newsboys, conductors, maids and milkmen. Ellis, meanwhile, reappears as a helpful farmer’s wife and a traitorous confidante who unmasks him only to find herself handcuffed to him for the duration.
    Technically more complex than Dignity’s usual fare, this production features fog, gunshots, special lighting and a slide show backdrop. The hilarious preshow of Alfred Hitchcock’s tongue-in-cheek videos introducing his greatest hits is not to be missed.
    Director Jim Reiter, a veteran of Dignity Players hits such as Sordid Lives, The Crucible and Shadowbox, has assembled a brilliant cast. Cobb — a Dignity alum from 8 and Sight Unseen — is equal parts suave, sly and charming. Ellis — who has appeared with nearly every local theater except Dignity — is cool and glamorous with a demure style perfect for the period. Lund — who has worked with Dignity on and off stage in productions such as The Vagina Monologues, A Christmas Carol, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and The Shadow Box — exhibits Peter Sellers’ comic genius in his portrayal of characters such as Professor Jordan, the Nazi.
    Hood — an ubiquitous local favorite memorable for his hilarious Scrooge, Psuedolus and Shakespeare — displays his box of tricks: from Mr. Memory’s out-of-body experiences to a sanctimonious Scot’s brimstone mealtime blessing. After appearing with countless theaters in the Baltimore-Washington area, he is excited to be doing this play, his one and only with Dignity, because of this show. “Normally the stuff they do is too serious for me to care about,” he says, “but THIS ONE!”
    If the perception of seriousness has kept you from Dignity’s many outstanding productions over the years, change your ways. The 39 Steps is the funniest play you’ll see all year and Dignity’s swan song: a parting gift for nine great years.


Costumes: Jeannie Christie. Stage manager: Andy McLendon. Technical designers: Julien Jacques and Mickey Lund.
Playing thru May 17. Th-Sa 8pm at The Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis, 333 DuBois Rd. $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-266-8044 x127; www.dignityplayers.org.

That was pretty cool!

Rock musical and Andrew Jackson make a logical theatrical fit when you think about it: arrows cutting people down in mid-sentence; the scandal of marrying a married woman; a “people’s president” who strengthens the power of his office — yet sparks the creation of the Democratic party while crafting his image to get what he wants. There’s a lot of stage-worthy material to be mined from the life of our seventh president, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson reaches deep. What emerges is a loud, profane, politically incorrect, funny and raucous show that offers daunting challenges to any company daring to stage it.
    The Theatre at Anne Arundel Community College surmounts most of those challenges, offering a lively and enjoyable production overall. One big plus: A talented and tight rock combo nestled upstage. They adeptly accompany screaming rock and quiet ballads. I’d love to credit them but, curiously, their names do not appear in the program. 
    As Andrew Jackson, Vincent Capuano plays at both ends of the hit-and-miss spectrum. He has a commanding stage presence, a good voice and knows his subject, both as history and as written by the playwrights. But he misses a few of the screamin’ rock ‘n’ roll high notes early on, though his voice warmed up as the show progressed.
    In Act II of this second night of the run, he carried a script. There are a lot of legitimate reasons that can happen — usually an actor has taken on a role late in production after another actor leaves. No explanation was offered, so there will be no judgment here. But those paying $20 a ticket may have done some judging. To his credit, Capuano didn’t seem to miss a beat. Here’s hoping the break between weekends eliminates the on-stage book because Capuano’s talent deserves to be unleashed in this role.
    Jennie Woods excels as Rachel Jackson, Andrew’s wife. Her comic timing is sharp, and she is equally adept at drama. Her pleasant voice is perfectly matched to her songs, which is another way of saying she is so talented she makes them her own. Rachel grounds her rock star husband. Woods likewise gives substance to this production, adding heart to the zaniness.
    The rest of the cast commits to each role, often playing several. They have a blast doing it, yet director Dr. Lars Tatom’s guidance has set clear parameters so that they resist the temptation to go too far in a very over-the-top show. That makes it a lot easier for the audience to go along for the ride.
    What isn’t easy on the audience is, too often, the sound. By definition, a rock musical is going to be loud, and there are times when the college sound system and acoustics, clearly not built for such volume, erupt into painful distortion. When the entire chorus gets going, with all those body mikes fighting for radio frequency, the din often drowns the words. 
    When’s the last time you went to a rock concert and heard all the words? Still had fun, didn’t you?
    That’s how to approach Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. It’s a fun show, performed by a talented cast. Like any rock concert it has its hits and misses. But you walk out, ears ringing, saying that was pretty cool.

Director and producer: Lars Tatom. Music director: Aaron Smith. Choreographer: Tommy Parlon. Stage manager: Brittany Adams.

Playing April 17-19, ThFSa 8pm at Kauffman Theatre, Anne Arundel Community College, Arnold. $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 410 777-2457; boxoffice@aacc.edu.

This romanticized Frankenstein story is a shocking musical with a rocking score.

The story of a Bat Boy living in a West Virginia cave — illustrated with a photoshopped baby picture —  amazed America in 1992 when published by Weekly World News, which bills itself as The World’s Only Reliable News. Playwrights Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming shared the popular fascination, and a gothic science fiction began stewing in their minds.
    Five years later, with the help of composer/lyricist Laurence O’Keefe, their romanticized Frankenstein story — a sort of Edward Scissorhands meets Dracula and Liza Doolittle — became a hit musical with a shocking book and rocking score.
    Now, Beverly van Joolen and Colonial Players shake up staid Annapolis with a five-star production and an all-star cast exultant in pathos, religiosity, hypocrisy and tasteful debauchery.
    Ron Giddings as Bat Boy/Edgar is phenomenal, embodying his character’s mutations with curled extremities, nasal mewling, haunted eyes and adorably creepy ears. Yanked from his subterranean home, he lives like a curiosity with the family of Hope Falls’ veterinarian Dr. Parker (Chris Patton), suspended arms folded from his cage or flitting to the tabletop. Starved for love and blood, he is dependent on the charitable Parkers, who transform him from a bald beast to a civilized boy.
    The virginal missus, Meredith Parker (Wendy Baird), mothers and tutors him as she sings A Home for You, feeding him people food he retches. Meanwhile, the villainous doctor secretly feeds his bloodlust and plots his destruction even as sister Shelley (Paige Miller) learns to love him.
    Despite good intentions, proclaimed in the song Christian Charity, townsfolk are not so accepting.
    Edgar alienated the locals right off the bat by biting young Ruthie Taylor (Emma Panek), who with brothers Rick (Nathan Bowen) and Ron (Corey Jeweler) discovered him in the cave. She’s been languishing in the hospital ever since. There Mrs. Taylor (Alicia Sweeney) croons Mrs. Taylor’s Lullaby to her with the comic shrillness of Edith Bunker. Hormone-crazed Rick seethes, in Whatcha Wanna Do?, over Edgar’s place in Shelley’s home and heart.    
    Meanwhile, Edgar’s Pygmalion-like transformation — mastering English with a British accent no less, singing Show You a Thing or Two — proves fantastic and fatal. Sheriff Reynolds (Scott Nichols), Mayor Maggie (Debbie Barber-Eaton) and citizens (Bronwyn van Joolen, Shannon Benil, Sam Cush, Kendra Penn and Shirley Panek) can’t warm up to the freak in formalwear.
    When Edgar crashes a church revival where the Rev. Hightower (Lynn Garretson) raises the roof with Christian love, singing A Joyful Noise, Edgar’s earnest prayer for healing in Let Me Walk Among You is thwarted by Dr. Parker’s slanderous lies. Thus, the Bat Boy becomes the scapegoat for the community’s woes.
    He and Shelley flee to the woods where Pan (John Hamli), sublime in fur and codpiece, presides over their coupling amid an animalistic orgy. His song is Children, Children. The couple quarrel over their future together in Inside Your Heart before her parents discover them and resolve the mystery of Edgar’s history (via a video projection to onstage scrims) to determine the couple’s fate.
    It’s macabre, zany, sweet and ridiculous with rousing tunes like Hold Me, Bat Boy that you’ll continue humming all weekend. The entire cast delivers in this biting social commentary. Miller and Giddings will break your heart with their harmonies and humanity, while Hamli and Garretson astound with their powerhouse vocals. Baird and Bowen display comic genius in their singing and acting roles.
    Colonial’s most technically intensive project to date, Bat Boy employs four types of LED lights, colored strobes, center stage floating projections, fire, smoke, fog, a mirror ball and moving sound. Even the program, in tabloid format, delivers with flashy headlines and bat-themed trivia.
    You’ll have to see this extraordinary two hours and 15 minutes to believe it.
    But don’t take the kids: Content depicts violence, sex and drug use, and special effects are alarming.

Musical director: David Merrill. Choreographer: Jamie Erin Miller. Set: Terry Averill. Sound: Wes Bedsworth. Lights: Frank A. Florentine. Costumes: Elizabeth Chapman. Makeup: Eddie Hall. Additional special effects: Keith Norris. Musical accompaniment: Right on Cue Services. Film: Make Your Mark Studios.
 
Playing thru April 19. ThFSa 8pm, Su 2pm at Colonial Players Theater, 108 East St., Annapolis. $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-268-7373; www.thecolonialplayers.org.
 

Can two old geezers find a future past resentment?

For Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, Twin Beach Players reunites the biggest comedy team in Vaudeville for a nostalgic performance of their once-famous Doctor sketch.
    Willie Clark (Jeff Larsen) and Al Lewis (Tom Wines) were the act to catch for 43 years. But 11 years ago, Al walked out, leaving Willie to hold the bag of gags.
    Now, in their golden years, CBS asks them to reunite in a show that pays reverence to the great comic stars through the years. It’s a second chance in a lifetime, but resentment — and tension — get in the way. Clark’s nephew and agent (Tom Weaver) has to figure out a way to get the two geezers to bury the hatchet and pull off the television show.
    Mayhem ensues when Clark ­nearly dies trying. His heart attack keeps the double-trouble duo out of the television show.
    Fate has another plan for them: living together in relative peace and performing their acts in a retired actors’ home.
    Opening night brought not only the old boys but also new comfort to the theater’s small venue at North Beach Boys and Girls Club. Thanks to Twin Beach master carpenter Justyn Christofel, the audience looks down on the action from moveable-bleachers.
    But play-goers didn’t fill the bleachers or help keep the Sunshine Boys’ uptempo.
    Highlights — like the Doctor sketch rehearsal for a CBS television show and the scene where the boys threaten each other with dagger and cane — bring comic relief to a play slow to take off in Act 1. Act 2 regains momentum as the old boys regain their old timing.

Aidan Davis as Eddie; Staci Most as Vaudeville Nurse; Samantha Wadsworth as Nurse. Director and production designer: Sid Curl. Assistant director and stage manager: Donna Bennett. Costume designer: Dawn Denison. Music designer: Bob Snider. Setting and make-up designer: Wendy Cranford. Lighting tech assistant: Katherine Willham. Lighting and sound board operator: Camden Raines. Audience design: Richard Keefe Jr. Promotions and advertising: Viv Petersen and Philomena Gorenflo. House management: Lynda Collins and Viv Petersen.
Playing FSa 8pm; Su 3pm thru April 13 at North Beach Boys and Girls Club, North Beach. $12 w/discounts: 410-286-1890; www.twinbeachplayers.com.

See it, and Shakespeare lives

Shakespeare’s plays are still being performed 400 years after they were created because they were brilliantly written but also because their themes are timeless.
    Not every theater company that takes on Shakespeare can live up to the Bard’s talent and intent, moving beyond the page to vitalize his characters, prose and situations. But when Shakespeare is done well, his stories jump off the page and into our consciousness, demanding our attention and forcing us not just to understand but also to feel what his characters are feeling, and why.
    So it is with Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet. Beautifully realized, stylistically and brilliantly transposed into the current day, this Hamlet is a tour de force, a masterwork for the company. Director and set and sound designer Sally Boyett, the company’s producing artistic director, has earned a reputation for her economical yet transformative use of the Bowie Playhouse stage. This production furthers that reputation. From the huge gilded frames that hang from a dark sky to the sacrifice of a few house seats in favor of a platform that thrusts the actors almost halfway into the audience, this is an impressively aesthetic production.
    Boyett’s haunting and ethereal sound and Paul Collins’ often eerie lighting accompany our journey through Hamlet’s madness and his thirst for revenge. Maggie Cason’s costumes, mostly muted grays but with a touch of blood-red seemingly everywhere, remind us that madness, revenge and betrayal are not only to be found in Shakespeare’s time.
    Of course, none of this matters if the acting and direction do not achieve the same standards, and here both are surpassing. Every one of our community theater actors and directors would benefit from attending at least one of Annapolis Shakespeare’s productions, especially this one, because the dedication and commitment to character, to dialect, to pacing and to clarity are unsurpassed.
    Manu Kumasi’s Hamlet is stellar, the fire and humor coming not just from the staccato delivery of his lines but blasting from his every pore. His physicality seems to envelop the theater, especially when he ascends to the end of that aforementioned platform and with sheer passion imposes his world onto ours, his fiery eyes just feet away from ours, boring directly into us and gripping us with his madness.
    Likewise, Audrey Bertaux brings us an Ophelia whose own tragic fall into madness could have been over the top in less capable hands. Instead, we are drawn into the character’s decline and feel pity for the way Hamlet projects his anger toward his mother onto her.
    Nafeesa Monroe as Gertrude and Paul Edward Hope as Claudius lead the rest of the company, several of whom very effectively play multiple roles. From Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Horatio to Polonius and all the rest you read about in school, this is Shakespeare at his best, flying off the pages and brought to life in a production whose superlative whole is far greater than the sum of its very excellent parts.

Producer: Kristen Clippard. Stage manager: Monica Jones. Dialect coach: Nancy Krebs.
Playing thru April 13. Th 7pm, F 8pm, Sa 2pm & 8pm, Su 3pm at the Bowie Playhouse, White Marsh Park Park. $24/$20: 410-415-3513; www.annapolisshakespeare.org.

Fired by the kind of love that transcends reason and leaves you weak in the knees.

From the thunderclap of their meeting to their untimely deaths, the power of Romeo and Juliet’s love for each other resonates throughout the play, and throughout history.
    So promises Compass Rose Theater in program notes to the youthful production of William Shakespeare’s classic. Yet the thunderclap failed to sound at the play’s pre-opening pay-what-you-can matinee. Blame it on a delayed opening due to technical problems, non-traditional casting or inexperience. Whatever the reason, there was no passion. Passionate debate and sword fights, yes, but passionate kisses, alas, no.
     Seventeen-year-old Ely Pendry, a Compass Rose alum dating back three years to Lost in Yonkers, is the best Romeo I have ever seen. He is fired by the kind of love that transcends reason and leaves you weak in the knees.
    Fourteen-year-old Sydney Maloney as the child-bride Juliet, however, does not yet have the depth of understanding to transcend emotions beyond coquetry, fear and tantrums. Similarly, this promising production feels immature. From the previous show’s recycled set to Friar John’s (Kyle Lynch) forgotten opening monologue and a conspicuous lack of equity players central to the theater’s mission, it left me unmoved. This despite many fine performances.
     In brief: Family tension is palpable from the opening clash in which the Prince of Verona (Brenna Horner) orders Romeo Montague’s father (Lynch) and Juliet Capulet’s father (Dan Reno) to rein in their feud. Romeo and his friends Benvolio (Shaina Higgins) and Mercutio (Emily Kaye Lynn) recklessly crash the Capulets’ party — and the lovers first meet.
    Juliet’s nurse (Renata Plecha), sympathetic in the extreme, arranges for the lovers’ secret marriage. Then Juliet’s kinsman Tybalt (Michael Robinson) kills Mercutio in a duel and is subsequently killed in like fashion by a reluctant Romeo who is banished from Verona, leaving Juliet inconsolable.
    Capulet and Lady Capulet (Maggie Robertson) arrange for her speedy betrothal to the haughty Count Paris (Matt Miller), an elder suitor whom she despises. Thus Friar Laurence (Thomas Hessenauer), who performed her wedding, arranges a fake death to buy time until Romeo can spirit her away from the crypt. Miscommunication results in their serial suicides.
     There is great action and acting in this show. The sword fighting is tight and treacherous. Lynn’s Mercutio sparkles with charisma and energy. Robinson’s Tybalt is a menacing hot head who commands attention. Plecha and Hessenauer bring the wisdom and compassion of age to their nurse and friar characters, and Reno demonstrates a mercurial temperament as Juliet’s father that well explains her fear of displeasing him.
    The period costumes are beautiful and tailored. Of the four women in pants roles — a reversal of the norm in Shakespeare’s time — only Lynn has the hairstyle to pull it off with aplomb, and the Prince looks strangely androgynous. Another disconcerting turn, which is probably accurate for the time and therefore a brilliant decision on the director’s part, is actors in their late 20s playing the parental roles. Do the math and be amazed. There is some music scattered throughout, but inconsistent in period and style.
     Despite the shortcomings, there is still much to enjoy in this blossoming production, not least Pendry and Lynn’s outstanding performances. As a professional show, it earns a B. But as a student project from an educational theater, it’s a real winner.

With Casey Baum as Romeo’s servant and Sydney Knoll as Juliet’s servant. Director: Lucinda Merry-Browne. Costumes: Julie Bays. Fight director: Casey Kaleba. Lights: Megan Lang. Sound: Kathleen Boidy. Set: Amy Kellet.
Playing thru April 20. Th 7pm, FSa 8pm (Sa April 12 & 19 also 2pm) Su 2pm at Compass Rose Theater, 49 Spa Rd., Annapolis. $35 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-980-6662; www.compassrosetheater.org.

The playwrights did it.

The theater darkens. Ominous, deep, suspenseful music oozes around us. Shadows rise. A hooded figure attacks. Bowie Community Theater’s latest, Dark Passages, begins.
    A good whodunit requires tight writing, staging and pacing, all to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.
    In this modern take on the murder suspense mystery, the cast works hard to rise above a script that gives us little more than we’ve already seen in movies, plays and episodes of Castle.
    Playwrights Shannon Michael Dow, Jan Henson Dow and Robert Schroeder have put together a script that is sometimes funny, sometimes involving. But its constant and obvious efforts to keep us guessing about whodunit ironically sap the play of the suspense that ought to be at its core.
    Are we on the edge of our seats? No. Are we curious? Yes, about whodunit of course, but also about why a script set in the present day of voice mail and texts relies on an early-1990s’ era cassette tape telephone answering machine as a plot point. Or why the choice was made to hang a working clock on the wall to remind us of the real time — around 8:30pm, for example, when the program tells us the scene we’re watching is set on “a weekday afternoon.”
    Quibbles aside, Bowie Community Theater’s production provides us an entertaining evening, with some compelling characters and some clever, two-level staging that allows the action to flow effectively.
    Set in an upstate New York college town, the mystery begins when several young women go missing. We are introduced to Sandy (Chrisshall Daniel), a graduate assistant to professor Mark (Pat Reynolds). Sandy is first to be taken away, in the dark of her apartment by a black-hooded intruder. Mark’s girlfriend Bret (Amanda Magoffin) moves into the vacated apartment run by creepy landlord Harold (Scott Beadle). Across the hall is neighbor Eric (Matt Leyendecker), whose loud banging is explained away as him working on his art, though the box he moves it in is roughly the size of a coffin.
    We also meet oversexed Gillian (Lenora Spahn), a friend of Bret’s just back from Europe and looking at males like a dog in heat. Will she be next? Will Bret? Detective Russell (James McDaniel) is there to investigate. Or is he?
    Meanwhile, Bret and Mark are having their problems. It turns out the professor was having an affair with the missing Sandy. Eric rejects Gillian’s advances. More ominous music, another attack … another woman goes missing. The plot turns again. 
    Whodunit is revealed at the end, of course, after several more twists. The likeable cast has turned in a solid performance. We rise, not from the edge of our seats but from deep within, that ominous music serenading us as we exit, wondering how this talented group might have fared with a script that asks more of them and us.

Directed by John Nunemaker. Producer: Taylor Kidd. Stage manager: Bernadette Arvidson. Sound designer: Dan Caughran. Set designer: Gerard Williams. Lighting designer: Garrett Hyde.

Playing thru March 16. FSa 8pm, Su 2pm at White Marsh Playhouse, Bowie. $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 301-805-0219; www.bctheatre.com.

2nd Star Productions casts dynamite in this explosive production

2nd Star Productions grew up on musicals and comedy. Now 18 years old, the company has matured. You’ll see the change — and you’ll want to, I promise you — in 2nd Star’s first production in a new playhouse.
    A Soldier’s Play, at the Charis Center for the Arts, is serious drama arising from social discord. It’s the kind of significant show you’d expect from Dignity Players, the Annapolis social justice-focused company about to go dormant. Rated R for mature audiences, Charles Fuller’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize winner is historical fiction rooted in racial tension and mystery. 2nd Star brings a dynamite cast of fresh talent to its production.
    The time is 1944. The setting is a segregated army base in Louisiana, where 90 percent of the soldiers are black enlisted men warehoused away from combat. One of the black soldiers has been murdered. Circumstances are puzzling. The story follows the investigation of his death.
    Sgt. Waters (Cristopher M. Dinwiddie), was admired for his high standards and impeccable record — and resented for his inflexibility. When his body is found in the woods, his commanding officer, Capt. Taylor (Dan Kavanaugh), refuses to accept the obvious explanation of a Klan attack. He demands a full investigation. But when black lawyer Capt. Davenport (Kevin Sockwell) is assigned to the case, Taylor worries that Davenport’s color will stand in the way of his investigation. In fact, Davenport’s race and conviction make him just the man to navigate the ins and outs of the black enlisted men’s barracks and the white officer corps. What follows is a series of testimonies, related in flashbacks, illustrating the sergeant’s mercurial temperament, racial  self-loathing and self-important authority over a company of elite baseball players.
    Among Sgt. Waters’ soldiers are Pvt. Wilkie (Benny Pope), a former sergeant demoted for being drunk on duty; Pvt. Smalls (Antoine Bragg), a surly malcontent; Pvt. Henson (Daley Fitzgerald Gunter), a hunky ladies’ man and dispassionate observer of barracks’ politics; PFC Peterson (Reginald Grier), the quiet one; Pvt. C.J. Memphis (Ramone Williams), a gifted blues musician and gentle soul from the South; and Cpl. Cobb (David E. Johnson Jr.), C.J.’s best friend. Cpl. Ellis (Frederick Henderson) is the sergeant’s eager right-hand man. Two bigoted white officers, Lt. Byrd (Lawrence Griffin) and Capt. Wilcox (Ethan Goldberg), are dragged into the investigation as the last to see Sgt. Waters alive. Davenport considers the whole crew to have motives and means for the murder.
    In this vast and youthful cast, only the three white actors — Kavanaugh, Griffin and Goldberg — are familiar to Anne Arundel audiences. The rest, a remarkably talented and fit group justly cast as athletes, make the barracks hum with palpable camaraderie. All were recruited by the show’s producer, Cheramie Jackson. Dinwiddie stuns as Sgt. Waters, a role he played for Prince George’s Hard Bargain Players, and Johnson’s soulful melodies haunt long after curtain. 
    New faces and content aren’t the only surprises consequent on 2nd Star’s accommodation of the new three-show scheduling restriction imposed by its long-time home, Bowie Playhouse, to accommodate a fourth residential company.
    Long acclaimed for ornate sets, 2nd Star now offers a minimalist set of black platforms without special effects in the Charis Center’s primitive accommodations. It doesn’t matter, given the energy onstage.
    You’ll be on edge the full two hours.

Director and set designer: Jane B. Wingard. Producer: Cheramie J. Jackson. Lights: Rick Schultz. Sound: Ramone Williams. Costumes: Wingard and Jackson.
Playing thru March 9. FSa 8pm, Su 3pm at Charis Center for the Arts, 13010 8th St., between the post office and fire department in Bowie’s historic district. $15 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-757-5700; www.2ndstarproductions.com.

The donuts are all that’s missing in this theatrical treat

Welcome to Superior Donuts in Uptown Chicago, established by the Przybyszewski family c. 1950 and static ever since. You know the place: checkerboard floor, lettered window, illuminated menu board, vintage register. All that’s missing in Colonial Players’ set is the sweet aroma and some napkins for the dispensers.
    Arthur (Terry Averill), the aged hippie who owns the place, hasn’t had his heart in it lately. What with his ex’s death, his daughter’s estrangement and the new Starbucks across the street, he’s more in touch with past failures than present possibilities.
    Still, he has his regulars: namely officers James Bailey (Chris Haley) and Randy Osteen (Shirley Panek), who has a crush on Arthur; and Lady Boyle (Mary McLeod), his homeless friend and confidante. When vandalism pushes Arthur to the brink, Max Tarasov (Rick Estberg), the Russian immigrant who owns the DVD store next door, offers to buy the place.
    Then Franco Wicks (Darius McCall) hires on and lobbies for healthier menu options, poetry readings and profit sharing. Arthur isn’t so sure about Franco’s ideas, but he feels kinship with the gifted writer who’s put school on hold to pay off debts — gambling debts, as it turns out. Enter Luther Flynn (Mike Fox), a loan shark and exploiter, and his enforcer Kevin Magee (Gerald Inglesby).
    While Superior Donuts is funnier and lighter than Tracy Letts’ typical work (August: Osage County), it nevertheless contains mature themes, language and violence. A story for modern times, about community as a substitute for family, it teeters between chill and chilling. Arthur’s story lulls us with introspective calm through snippets of conversation in his foggy present and lucid soliloquies about his past — until reality breaks the hush, demanding he take a stand against the thugs who strong-arm his new friend.
    This is a smart show, well staged and well acted. Every actor surpasses the character sketch. Averill is every inch the 1960s’ holdout, deceptively sly and capable under his rumpled appearance.  McCall delights with his youthful enthusiasm and mastery of a role he learned in only three weeks. Estberg is flashy and hilarious with his authentic Russian accent and butchered English, bringing a depth of conviction to the comical immigrant who nevertheless commands respect. McLeod wears her duct-taped tiara with dignity. Haley and Panek eclipse their cop personas with genuine personalities. The Mafiosi radiate menace, and Ben Carr captivates in the tiny cameo of the monosyllabic Russian giant Kiril Ivakin.
    The show is technically strong as well, with a soundtrack of ambient street noises timed to swell each time the door opens and lighting details that evoke a commercial failure. The costumes speak volumes about their characters, from Lady’s plastic-bag boots to Arthur’s tie-died T-shirt.
    My only reservation is the credibility of casting Terry Averill as the main character. Averill is an outstanding actor, but his frail build belies the Pillsbury doughboy image of the aged baker. Add to that his climactic fight scene with hulking Fox (Luther) and the play touches on theater of the absurd. It’s like watching Tony Soprano and Woody Allen in a knock-down drag-out.
    Suspend your disbelief in that incongruity, and you’ll see a winner at every level, including insight into urban development, racial tension and the fragmentation of the family.

Director and set designer: Kristofer Kauff. Sound: Ben Cornwell. Lights: Brittany Rankin. Costumes: Jean Berard and Beth Terranova. Running time: two and a half hours plus intermission.

Playing thru March 8 ThFSa 8pm, Su 2pm (also 7:30pm Feb. 23) at Colonial Players Theater, Annapolis. $20w/discounts; rsvp: 410-268-7373; www.thecolonialplayers.org.