Through March 27 at the Performance Workshop Theatre
It had been 23 months since the Performance Workshop Theatre staged a show in its own space and 17 months since one in any space. It was a frustrating stretch of silence from one of Baltimore’s most interesting, most eccentric theatrical troupes, but it finally ended March 4 when the PWT presented [un]told stories at its new home in Hamilton.
Given that its old home was 28 seats in a one-room Federal Hill basement, the new quarters seem like Madison Square Garden by comparison. In the same block as the Clementine restaurant, the current site is a former Provident Bank branch with its art-deco stone façade intact. Inside the front door is a wide, comfortable lobby and beyond is the theater itself, five diagonal rows of 42 fixed seats and seven folding chairs that nearly double PWT’s former capacity. And there’s obviously room for further growth.
For all the changes, however, the troupe hasn’t lost its signature intimacy. The playing area is still on the floor, an arm’s reach from the front row and less than 20 feet from the back row. There’s still no need for the performers to raise their voices above a normal conversational tone, a naturalism that yields a very different theatrical experience. It was on that floor, covered by an oriental rug, that PWT co-artistic director Marc Horwitz stood alone at a lectern and declared, almost matter-of-factly, “When Mr. Hiram B. Otis, the American Minister, bought Canterville Chase, everyone told him he was doing a very foolish thing, as there was no doubt at all that the place was haunted.”
[un]told stories is not a play, it turns out, but a one-man storytelling festival. Directed by PWT co-artistic director Marlyn Robinson and originally presented by the PWT in 2003, the show offers six different prose pieces by Luigi Pirandello, Edgar Allan Poe, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, and William Butler Yeats. Only one or two selections are presented at each performance, though every piece is repeated four times during the full run of the show. In addition, there are two special Sunday evening shows featuring three William Saroyan stories.
On opening night, the two tales were ghost stories: Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost” and Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The Wilde piece begins as a typical haunted-house story with an evil aristocrat still stalking the hallways 303 years after a notorious murder, his chains clanking loudly after midnight. Horwitz does a terrific job of evoking every horror-movie narrator with his mellifluous old-world delivery. That sets up expectations that Wilde, in his irreverent fashion, quickly demolishes. Hiram Otis, a self-made American too rational to be frightened by a ghost, buys the poltergeist a bottle of Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator to stop those damn chains from clanking so.
Horwitz switches smoothly from Hiram’s Carolina drawl to the upper-class British accent employed by both the narrator and the ghost, setting up one of Wilde’s greatest lines: “We have everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.” The poor spirit, so accustomed to frightening his heirs into heart attacks and blithering idiocy, is nonplussed by the American’s equanimity. After assaults by hidden strings, pea-shooters, and pillow fights from Hiram’s youngest sons, the ghost is soon cowering in his hidden room.
This allows Wilde to indulge in much merriment at the expense of England’s aristocracy. Then the story shifts gears again, and a genuinely moving friendship springs up between the 300-plus-year-old ghost and Hiram’s 15-year-old daughter Virginia. Horwitz makes these changes in tone quite plausible because his delivery never resorts to scary shouts or snickering sarcasm but always retains its equable poise.
It often seems that every outdoor festival in Baltimore boasts a local actor performing “The Tell-Tale Heart” by the city’s famed resident Poe. But none of those actors has delivered as vivid a version of the short piece as Horwitz. As he did in the title role of The Puppetmaster of Lodz, Horwitz seems increasingly mad the more he tries to convince you of his rationality and sanity. And because he’s close enough to the audience to speak quietly, it’s easy to imagine that we are the cops who have come to inquire about a scream heard the night before. We don’t have to break down his alibi, because he seems so eager to do it himself.
Each set of stories will be preceded by a solo recital, a nice touch. Opening night featured cellist David Shumway; future artists include Irish fiddler Donna Long (formerly of Cherish the Ladies) and drummer William Goffigan (formerly of the Sun Ra Arkestra). It’s good to see the PWT back in action, and we can hardly wait until the crew tackles its first play in its new home.