Along the second story of a red-bricked low rise on Calvert Street, a single word juts out over the sidewalk: SHAKESPEARE, in bold white vertical lettering. The former Mercantile Trust & Deposit Co. building at 7 S. Calvert St. has been the home of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company Theater since they moved there in 2014.
The CSC, now in its 20th season, has been bringing “great classic theater to Baltimore” — primarily the works of William Shakespeare and, on occasion, certain other classics — and this winter is no exception. On Dec. 2, the company premiered its newest production, a performance of Charles Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol,” directed by Shanara Gabrielle, with a “Baltimore twist.”
For those in the know about the CSC, the addition of a “Baltimore twist” to the Dickens classic should come as no surprise. According to the CSC website, a core goal of the company is to break down the access barriers for Baltimore audiences and to cultivate a “more engaged, more connected community.”
The CSC’s efforts to engage native Baltimore residents manifests not only in staging thematics or in location, but in their educational ventures. The theater company offers several programs to engage Baltimore communities, such as the School Matinee Program, which offers subsidized or free showings of Shakespeare plays for school students; the Black Classical Acting Ensemble, described as “an affinity space and incubator at CSC for Black artists to explore ways to approach Shakespeare and other classics through an Afrocentric pedagogy and practice;” and the free Shakespeare for Kids Program, which provides free admission to over 1,000 youths under 18 to annual outdoor performances.
The company’s production of “A Christmas Carol” exemplifies the CSC’s efforts
to intertwine theater with local culture. Instead of Dickens’ bleak London, the play is set in Victorian Baltimore. Ebenezer Scrooge (played by Gregory Burgess) and his recently deceased associate Jacob Marley (played by J. Bradley Bowers) both work in Fells Point. Instead of coal shoveling or mill turning, the poor and impoverished of the play hoist ropes along the Baltimore docks, humming old spirituals and doing charmless work in the heart of Charm City.
The gleaming ghost of Christmas Past (played by Lauren Erica Jackson) even brings Scrooge to his boyhood boarding school in Old Ellicott City, complete with the mentions of a water wheel. Many of the changes are merely skin-deep, yet the production still manages to make Dickens’ London surprisingly relevant to 21st-century Baltimore. Hearing Burgess’ endlessly resentful Scrooge exhort the importance and usefulness of the prison system feels especially uncomfortable within an American (specifically Baltimorean) setting, reminding the audience that prison reform is no new issue.
Similarly, one cannot help but reflect on the state of poverty in America when old Scrooge is going on about decreasing the surplus population and letting the poor die. Considering that more than a quarter of Baltimore residents live below the poverty line, Scrooge’s remarks feel especially incendiary, and explicitly unsympathetic.
Scrooge’s negative perception of Baltimore is contrasted quite nicely by an appearance from old Mr. Dickens himself, who seems to have nothing but good things to say for the city – apparently based on a real life visit by the author. The presence makes it clear that it is only Scrooge, rather than the cast and crew, who feels such contempt for the city.
While a lovely show in its own right, Gabrielle’s “A Christmas Carol” is only one example
of the many ways CSC is trying (successfully) to bring art and theater to Baltimore. On the
opening night “A Christmas Carol” — as wells as their “Twelfth Night” production put on in September — the crowds reflected the efforts of the CSC to be inclusive. From neon-haired art kids wearing Doc Martens and Goodwill outfits, to grandparents in their Friday night finest, to even a Baltimore City delegate (Luke Clippinger, who happened to be sporting a spiffy Santa outfit at the “Christmas Carol” production), the crowd was quite diverse.
After both shows, the crowds were invited onto the mezzanine level, to eat and converse freely with the cast and crew. Far from the pomp and self-importance associated with classical theater, the CSC seems more inclined towards inviting Baltimore in than shutting Baltimore out, and for both the sake of the humanities and (perhaps more importantly) for the sake of the local community, this is a good thing.