It was bitter cold inside a 240-seat theater in St. Mary's Episcopal Outreach Center, where members of the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory rehearsed "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" on Sunday, Dec. 1.
As it turned out, the boiler was on the blink.
"We are heat-free today," said Kelly Dowling, 36, of Westminster, managing director of the theater troupe. "But as they say, the show must go on."
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For the Shakespeare Factory, as for its namesake, the play's the thing — but it certainly isn't a typical play. It isn't even a Shakespeare play, but "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," Dowling's adaptation of a holiday classic that will run Fridays and weekends, Dec. 6-22, at St. Mary's, 3900 Roland Ave.
Even for a holiday show, it's unusual. Those expecting to see a ballet-style "Nutcracker" will be in for a surprise. Dowling's version takes its cue from E.T.A. Hoffmann's original 1816 story, in which a young girl's Christmas toy, the Nutcracker, comes to life, defeats its adversary, the evil Mouse King in battle, and then whisks the girl to a kingdom of dolls.
But where the original story dispenses with the Mouse King early on, Dowling's adaptation dwells on the conflict between the Mouse King and the Nutcracker. It also mixes original and popular songs ranging from "Every Breath You Take" by the Police to "Love Story" by Taylor Swift. Don't be surprised to see actresses like Hannah Fogler, of Mount Washington, and Katharine Vary, of Hampden, wearing fake mouse noses in their roles as two of the Mouse King's seven heads.
And don't be surprised to see other cast members, some from as far away as Manassas, Va., strumming guitars or singing solo songs on an electric piano.
The Baltimore Shakespeare Factory version is being done in a musical comedy style known as "British panto."
That's short for pantomime, but not the kind with no words, as popularized by Marcel Marceau. Instead, it is a family-friendly style of holiday entertainment, popular in England but little known in the U.S., in which the emphasis is on musical comedy with songs, slapstick comedy, dancing and audience participation, Dowling said.
"Obviously, there's a lot of magic and shenanigans" as part of the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory's version, she said.
What it isn't, above all, is Shakespeare. In fact, the freewheeling show takes pains to point that out, with the 12 actors and actresses chanting "No Shakespeare," at one point in the show.
"Say 'to be or not to be,' said one cast member, having a little fun with a reporter.
"To be or not to be," repeated the reporter.
"No Shakespeare!" shouted the cast members.
Although willfully silly, it's not a bunch of amateurs goofing around onstage. The actors and actresses are paid small stipends, and many, like Vary and Fogler, are freelance actors, singers and acting teachers.
"This is a professional troupe," said Vary, who is also a stay-at-home mom.
Though unconventional by American standards, the show employs some conventions of British panto, including the cross-gender casting of actress Tegan Williams, of Randallstown, as the Nutcracker. British theatergoers of old, especially men, relished the chance to see women playing male roles.
"You got to see the ladies' legs," Dowling said.
Also in cross-gender mode is C-Mo Molloy, of Westminster, as a scene-stealing Dame Drosselmeier. Molloy, a strapping 25-year-old man, with a Theater Arts degree from McDaniel College, wore a pink wig, dress, cape and makeshift bosoms, and greeted the imaginary audience at the rehearsal with a hearty "Hi, hon," in honor of Hampden. Dowling said British panto often works in jokes about the neighborhoods in which the plays are performed.
The Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, which also holds summer performances and camps for children in the Meadow near Johns Hopkins University's Evergreen Museum and Library, decided to tackle "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" as a panto because it fits the troupe's performance and staging styles and its goal of audience interaction. In one scene, for example, children are recruited from the audience to join the Nutcracker's army.
One big difference is that panto is traditionally open-air theater and this show will be indoors, Dowling said. But she said the show is written and staged to be in the spirit of Shakespeare and the way he wrote.
"It's just good fun, which believe it or not is what Shakespeare is supposed to be," she said.
For tickets, showtimes and more information, call 410-921-WILL (9455) or go to http://www.theshakespearefactory.com.