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Articles by Jim Reiter

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.

Bad Dates is a good night out

In theater terms, when an actor talks directly to the audience, it’s known as breaking the fourth wall. When Janet Luby does it in Bay Theatre Company’s latest, she’s not so much breaking a wall as she is opening a door. Through that door we join her as she shares her life, her attempts at love and a lot of laughs.
    Bad Dates is a one-woman show written by playwright, screenwriter and novelist Theresa Rebeck about Haley Walker, a 40-something single mom and restaurant manager in New York who is jumping back into the dating pool. Her first love, besides her unseen 13-year-old daughter Vera, seems to be shoes, as the four closets filled with them in the nicely rendered set attest. Keeping up a constant chatter as she models several pairs and several outfits, Luby engages us stream-of-consciousness about Haley’s failed marriage, her job, her daughter, her shoes and her frustrating, funny and sometimes heartbreaking dates.
    Luby has a knack for this type of theater, having been so effective a couple of years ago in Becky’s New Car as the bored and tempted wife who seeks understanding from the audience. Her charm, timing and physicality keep things moving through the 90-minute performance (plus a 15-minute intermission), even rising above the script’s brief but uncharacteristic dip into the maudlin after a particularly promising beau proves a no-show. Luby is such a strong actress that we also get evocative and quite funny caricatures of the other people who inhabit her life, from the gay law professor to the bug guy to the Romanian Mafioso who owns her restaurant. A one-woman show, yes, with so many personalities.
    As director Richard Pilcher puts it in his program notes, Bad Dates is not a chick play. It’s funny, it rings true and it certainly comes from a woman’s point of view. But in Luby’s capable hands, it’s a story that both sexes will enjoy. If my car is any indication, it will also generate quite the drive-home conversation.

Set designer: Ken Sheats. Costumer: Maggie Masson. Lighting designer/state manager: Eric Lund. Props: JoAnn and Mike Gidos. Sound design: Natalie Pilcher.
Thru Jan. 26. FSa 7:30pm; Su 2 pm at Chesapeake Arts Center, Brooklyn Park: $24+ $4 surcharge; rsvp: www.chesapeakearts.org.

Come to feel, think and applaud

Many theater companies are neither willing nor able to move from a bubbly musical directly into a disturbing death-row drama based on real life. Colonial Players is the exception, following November’s Annie with Coyote on a Fence.
    Coyote on a Fence is what Colonial calls an “arc” show, more challenging than usual and typically appealing to a smaller arc of patrons. Opening night proved that this production is deserving of larger, not smaller, audiences.
    Bruce Graham’s play focuses on long-time death row inmate John Brennan, the middle-aged editor of the prison newspaper who writes obituaries of each inmate put to death. Brennan is a fervent but deluded believer in his own innocence. Most on death row say they, too, are innocent.
    Except Bobby Reyburn. A late-20s, anti-Semite racist who gets the cell next to Brennan after burning down an African American church and killing 37 people, Reyburn says he was called to his work by God and was spoon-fed hate by a trusted uncle.
    The interplay between Bobby, who welcomes his execution, and John, who has exhausted every legal avenue on the way to his, demands two actors who not only commit to their characters but are consistent in their interpretations even as their characters hit sharply emotional highs and lows. Thom Sinn as John and Eddie Hall as Bobby meet that demand. A lesser actor might have allowed the histrionic Bobby to become a caricature, but Hall, under the capable direction of Colonial veteran Edd Miller, never does so. He and Sinn together take the audience on a journey that makes us care about them despite their violent pasts.
    Prison guard Shawna (an earthy Kecia Campbell) keeps a close eye on things. But outside the prison, she meets an unseen reporter in a series of monologues. Among her topics are how she feels safer on the inside among convicted killers than in the real world. Shawna’s final monologue is a heartbreaker.
    Another reporter works his way into Brennan’s confidence. Nicely underplayed by Jeff Sprague, Sam Fried’s condescension and conflict over the death penalty are no match for Brennan’s passion.
    Miller is one of the few directors who successfully uses Colonial’s in-the-round space. His set design puts all the action on the floor in front of us, avoiding the annoying neck craning too often required to watch scenes in the theater’s corners. The two cells abut, with an outside recreation area marked by a stark wire fence and a small area representing Shawna’s bar.
    Adding to the stark aura is Carl Andreasen’s and Theresa Riffle’s haunting sound design, a near-constant drone of background voices occasionally interrupted by the scream of an inmate or the physical shock and loud finality of a metal prison door trapping us all.
    Frank Florentine’s tight lighting evokes the sterility of the place, from harsh lights dimming upon an execution to the eerie green illuminating the empty cell of the newly executed.
    Coyote is the 14th show Miller has directed at Colonial. His Going to St. Ives was awarded best play and best director in the coveted Washington Area Theater Community Awards in 2012. Coyote on a Fence is likely to attract the same consideration.
    Warning: Save the pre-show cocktails for post. The play runs one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission.

Playing thru Jan. 25 ThFSa 8pm & Su Jan. 19, 2 & 7:30pm at 108 East St., Annapolis. $20 w/discounts: 410-268-7373; www.thecolonialplayers.org.

Colonial Players awards $1,000 to 2015 contest winner Mark Costello

Over 67 years, The Colonial Players of Annapolis has made its reputation by producing top-quality plays and musicals like The Liar, which earned the British Embassy’s 2015 Ruby Griffith Award as the best overall community theater production in the Washington-Baltimore area.
    The all-volunteer company also encourages new works. Since 1973 it has sponsored a biennial Promising Playwright competition. 2015’s winner was in the spotlight last weekend.
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A show of fun and fashion delights kids and the adults who bring them

Infinity Theatre — which has gained a solid reputation for bringing New York talent to the Annapolis stage — gives young audiences as well as adults a taste of professional theater.
    Infinity’s production of The Emperor’s New Clothes is a delight; you know it’s a winner when the parents and grandparents cheer and clap as enthusiastically as the kids they’ve accompanied.
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Farewell, Dignity Players

Less is more.    
    For nine years, Dignity Players proved it. The focus of this unique volunteer theater company was not on complex sets, colorful costumes, tricky lighting and sound effects. It couldn’t be, because for Dignity those things didn’t exist. All that existed was the small, bare stage at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis.
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