In Baltimore theater, seismic shifts

(Ken Stanek/ Courtesy of Strand Theater Company ) - Caroline C. Kiebach and Jon Kevin Lazarus in The Strand Theater's production of “Mother May I.”

(Ken Stanek/ Courtesy of Strand Theater Company ) - Caroline C. Kiebach and Jon Kevin Lazarus in The Strand Theater's production of “Mother May I.”

Is Baltimore theater getting a total overhaul? The core troupe, Centerstage, has a dynamic new artistic director, Kwame Kwei-Armah, now in his first season picking his own shows. The city’s respected Everyman Theatre will move out of its longtime Charles Street home in January, opening new digs near the Hippodrome.

The seismic shifts are rippling outward. A snapshot of three current shows on Charm City stages reveals a healthy range of tastes, from family-friendly Shakespeare to political venom from one of Britain’s most daunting dramatists. It also captures three emerging companies in major transitions.

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Strand Theater Company

At the 50-seat Strand Theater, a block north of Everyman, a straightforward domestic comedy called “Mother May I” finds two grown children visiting their nagging, out-of-touch parents. The daughter is an aspiring writer and gay. The son is a Hollywood success but can’t tell Dad out of fear of being criticized for selling out. (Dad’s a highbrow who worked for the National Endowment for the Arts.)

The play’s style of cracking jokes and anatomizing a messy family seems time-warped from Neil Simon’s heyday. That makes sense: Simon was a comedy-sketch writer before he was a playwright. “Mother May I” writer Dylan Brody has done stand-up. So has “Mother May I” director and new Strand Artistic Director Rain Pryor, daughter of Richard Pryor.

Rain Pryor, a vet of TV sitcoms, directs the cast with a knack for comic cadence. The show clicks along brightly, especially in Valerie Lash’s broad turn as the clueless, meddling mother and in Jon Kevin Lazarus’s understated poise as the screenwriter son. The staging’s major drawback is that unless you’re in the front row, it’s perplexingly hard to see the actors when they’re sitting at the same level as the audience, which happens a lot.

Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

Sightlines shouldn’t be an issue in the “Richard III” that’s scampering all over the ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City. The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company has been performing there for several years (“Pride and Prejudice” a few months ago was nicely composed and charmingly acted), and a creepy show that moves around the stone shell of this 19th-century building has become an autumn tradition.

But it’s a surprise to discover how ungainly it is for a hundred or so people to trail around after the actors. (The cast is led by Vince Eisenson, whose Tom Cruise grins don’t bring us particularly close to Richard’s black heart.) Nearly every scene of CSC Artistic Director Ian Gallanar’s staging ends with a guide’s cry of “This way, please!” Then, in transitions that take forever, the patrons are herded like cattle across the grassy yard, up and down stairs, through tiny doorways.

When you arrive at each stop, odds are you won’t be able to see through the crowd that gathers around playing areas like onlookers at accidents. There are rows of folding chairs on the grass for the climax, but stage fog swamps the audience and the downhill views are no good.

Look over your left shoulder, though, and the ghosts of Richard’s victims clambering out a cellar window to haunt the murderous king make for the kind of charged atmosphere you bargain for. The opening scene also exploits the historic architecture, playing out on wide stone steps with soaring columns behind. These are the theatrics to hang onto if the CSC continues its “movable” stagings come 2014, when it transfers into the spacious 19th-century bank building it has acquired near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. (The shows in the ruins are expected to continue.)

Single Carrot Theatre

The upstart troupe Single Carrot Theatre has been plucked out of its usual venue, Load of Fun, on North Avenue just around the corner from Everyman and Strand. The multi-use building has code issues to resolve, so Single Carrot’s sleek production of Caryl Churchill’s politically furious “Drunk Enough to Say I Love You” suddenly had no place to open. It is up and running, thanks to the Maryland Institute College of Art, which is hosting the production at the Brown Center (in the spacious Falvey Hall through Thursday), then through Oct. 21 at the Studio Center.

Since “Drunk Enough” made its 2006 debut in London, its gay male couple has typically been viewed as George W. Bush and Tony Blair, or the United States and the United Kingdom. The one-punch drama is unmistakably a power seduction, with the dominant partner (Sam) teasing and bullying the less-assured guy (named Guy) while they both sling the names of tyrants and geopolitical hot spots. The dialogue is shattered; the men speak in headlines and catchphrases, yet the fusillade is clearly meant to depict back-channel world domination. The play, which lasts 45 minutes, is a potshot editorial cartoon.

As Sam and Guy, Elliott Rauh and Dustin C.T. Morris (directed by Ben Hoover), respectively, perform with the outlaw/insider energy of con men drawing up nasty schemes. They don’t completely pull off Churchill’s bitter broadside; the rip-snort sketchiness of the writing leaves the actors too many details to fill in. But it’s a gutsy choice and an admirable effort.

Like so much else in Baltimore theater, the Carrots have more moves in their future: Come 2013, they’ll finish their season in Everyman’s current space on Charles Street.

Mother May I

by Dylan Brody. Directed by Rain Pryor. Through Friday at Strand Theater, 1823 N. Charles St., Baltimore. About two hours. 443-874-4917. www.strand-theater.org.

Richard III

by William Shakespeare. Directed by Ian Gallanar. About 21 / 2 hours. Through Oct. 28 at the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, 3691 Sarah’s Lane, Ellicott City. 410-313-8661. www.chesapeakeshakespeare.com.

Drunk Enough to Say I Love You

by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Ben Hoover. About 45 minutes. Through Oct. 21 at the Maryland Institute College of Art Studio Center, 113 W. North Ave., Baltimore. 443-844-9253. www.singlecarrot.com.

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