The Annex Theater’s original production of Minotaur reviewed by Sage Viscovi

On the corner of Clay Street and Park Avenue, embedded in a red brick building concealed by an eerie haze at dusk, you will find the Baltimore Annex Theater. Producing shows since 2008, their core team consists of nine steady members. Through collaborations with other national performance groups, local university sponsorships, and the city’s own youth residents, the Annex Theater has become a key performative presence in Baltimore. The theater has housed productions ranging from classics such as Rhinoceros and Dr. Faustus to psychedelic film homages like Fantastic Planet, but also hosts original plays written and directed by Annex’s members and friends of the company.

Their latest production entitled Minotaur is an original play. Playwright and member Doug Johnson also served as director, set designer, props master, and naturally… the “Minotaur” for the production. His past set designs with Annex include The Magic Flute, Impassioned Embraces, and Flatland, and he was script author and director of Watership Down with Frith and Inle, and Dark Spell with the Yellow Sign Theatre. He was also set designer for The Electric Pharaoh performed by Baltimore Rock Opera Society.

In his foreword, Johnson gets existential in questioning the unknown. He was interested in creating a play where the lights are lit, carried, and extinguished by the actors themselves. Inspired by Picasso’s Guernica, Johnson developed an onstage labyrinth of haunted, candlelit imagery. He describes it as “a dark journey down a rabbit hole, through a wardrobe filled with the clothes of people from my past.” The performance was the result of  refusing to obey to the voices in his head telling him to give up, instead listening to them very closely.

Even on a dismal Sunday there wasn’t an empty seat in the house. Upon entering the theater, I discovered the stage was more like an interactive runway. The space was dim with assorted chairs surrounding each side, and scraps of burlap adorned the ceiling above. No photography was permitted, to focus attention on the action of the play. After a brief introduction, the performance commenced in complete darkness.

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 11.14.34 AMRjyan Kidwell as Adam (left) and Molly Margulies as Amy (right) 

Minotaur began with a haunting religious chant from the wings. Set pieces were then dragged onto the set by crewmembers that in the darkness looked almost serpentine. Soon Amy, the play’s lead role (played by Molly Margulies), appeared onstage and started ransacking rotting corpses on the ground for treasure. Amy is then nearly caught by a couple of bumbling grave robbers, and after they leave the ghastly image of her companion Adam appears (played by Rjyan Kidwell).

Adam’s presence was signified by a mystifying green light, and when the lights were out his ghoulish, wiry appearance still remained in the form of a glow-in-the-dark outline. Adam served as a bewitching mentor to Amy, guiding her throughout the play and continuously warning her not to trust others she came across. One particular standout quote from his character: “You want to have woods. You want to have friends. There’s wolves in both of them.” This statement offered a recurring theme for the rest of the performance.

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 11.08.27 AMTrevor Wilhelms as John (left) and Molly Margulies as Amy (right)

Amy and the other inhabitants of the underground labyrinth live in fear of the Minotaur, a giant beast that kills anyone in his path. Their only means of survival is light, as the labyrinth is completely black on its own. Thus, it’s a dog-eat-dog battle for candles, lighters, and lamps and Amy finds herself progressively losing who she really is with each new stranger she faces.

She has her first awry encounter with Harmon (played by Annex newcomer, Andrew Holter), a suave somewhat-lothario type character who seduces Amy into sharing her food with him and then sharing a kiss. When she wakes up hours later, she finds he has stolen her lantern, much to the chagrin of Adam.Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 11.08.18 AM

Her self-esteem now significantly damaged, Amy decides to become more masculine and goes by simply “My”. Up until this point in the play I was thoroughly enjoying the plotline, but this was the first moment that puzzled me. While I do strongly believe that transgender characters need more representation in theater (especially because of the high ratio of  LGBT characters that are just killed off in both plays and musicals), I think the way in which it was introduced in this particular situation seemed quite sudden and was not grounded in the best possible way.

This transition felt like it was included more so for the sake of addition rather than adding anything relevant to the storyline. This personal feeling was intensified once My met Sandra (played by Madeleine Scott, a current Theatre student at Goucher and also first-time Annex actress). Sandra is a virtuoso, happy-go-lucky girl who My establishes an intimate relationship with. Sandra ends up being the second person to betray the lead (leaving My, coincidentally, for Harmon), and after this episode My immediately reverts to identifying as Amy… or rather, “Nobody”, as Sandra unconsciously calls her.Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 11.16.20 AM

At this point, Adam begins losing patience with Amy. She meets John (played by Trevor Wilhelms, also the lighting designer), a nervous, troubled man who is waiting for his absent brother to return to the boiler room where he dwells. Amy agrees to watch him as he falls asleep but leaves him soon after, finally realizing she can’t be pushed around any longer if she wants to survive another day.
Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 11.08.12 AMAfter a sweltering fever dream involving a sauna and figures with missing eyes, the play ends on a nearly evangelical note. Amy, dumbstruck at what the next step should be, argues with Adam who reveals himself as a massive, monstrous demon bent on devouring her. The Minotaur swiftly appears and pierces Adam with a large fork, thus killing him and saving a helpless Amy. The Minotaur speaks gently to her, and then to conclude the play carries her off into a bright light (presumably Heaven).

One thing that was sensually prominent in to this show was not only visuals and sounds but also, unexpectedly, scent. Being that close to the actors allowed me to catch whiffs off of their various well-constructed costumes. For example, Adam had a woodsy smell while the Minotaur had a deadly, floral aroma, similar to that of a funeral home (possibly to symbolize the afterlife?). The sauna scene involved the use of a fog machine, which was hidden underneath the chairs and offered a pungent scent. I think scents were a surprisingly successful factor in this production, and deepened my attachment to each scene.

While I do believe that some scenes might have perhaps worked better in film form with several transitions going on too long, the performance did several times have me on the edge of my seat (any further and I would have fallen onto the set!). It reminded me of other sensual fantasy movies I’d seen such as Pan’s Labyrinth and Coraline, without being overtly similar, so it still remained original.

Congratulations to Doug Johnson and the rest of the Baltimore Annex Theater on an outstanding performance, and I look forward to future successful events!

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Minotaur plays through April 10. Baltimore Annex Theater information: WebsiteFacebook • Twitter

Author Sage Viscovi is a senior at the Maryland Institute College of Art and a student intern for BmoreArt.

Photos by Dave Iden

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