A Survey of Experimental and Site-Specific Theater Offerings in Baltimore by Bret McCabe

More plays should end with you being led up Howard Street, at night, trailing a grown man wearing nothing but lace-up dress shoes, a white cape, and superhero briefs. That’s exactly where Single Carrot Theater’s A Short Homecoming spits you out after about two and half hours of perambulating around Remington catching a series of short plays in and around the neighborhood’s streets.

This smorgasbord of playwrights and performers commemorates SCT’s tenth anniversary season, bringing back cofounding members who moved on to other careers and cities, and remixes them with the current crop of Carrots. It’s a throwback to SCT’s more IDGAF, DIY days, with performances and plays hitting a bunch of different registers, and reminds you that this still-young company remains capable of peeling off something that leaves you wondering what in the actual fuck just happened.

Homecoming also arrives during at a moment when some of the most interesting, adventurous, and satisfying theater in town is produced for intensely short runs, for really intimate spaces, and for audiences who want something unexpected, unusual, or just wonderfully unpleasant.

Jessica Garrett and Elliot Rauh

This week alone, SCT’s Homecoming concludes its two-weekend run and Psychic Readings, fresh off last weekend’s visit from Brooklyn with Title: Point’s Pair of Dice, produces an adaptation of the 1974 Paul Morrissey-directed, Andy Warhol-produced, Blood for Dracula, which starred the creepy handsome Udo Kier as the titular pain in the neck. Sarah Jacklin adapted and is directing this production, and her gifts for seeing creepy, funny, and naughty as points along the same line compliment this film well. If you’ve never seen the flick, it’s a hoot, and not only because Kier plies his patrician Euro accent to say he needs “wirgin” blood to stay youthfully pretty and alive. Don’t we all, Udo, don’t we all.

In fact, credit the DIY theater brains that orbit around the Psychic Readings space—which includes that hub of Annex Theater, EMP, and Ric Royer, the co-founders of Le Mondo—as being the prime movers behind keeping WTF short-form theater vitally alive around these parts. Psychic launched its late-night series last year, which staged lesser-known and eclectic plays for a weekend or two, tops. And Annex—alongside Un Saddest Factory Theater aluma Cricket Arrison, Anna Fitzgerald, Lola Pierson, and Sarah Lloyd, who started its summertime Ten Minute Play Festival at the Bell Foundry circa 2009 (I think)—has maintained its smaller-scale, shorter run Knee Play series since about 2014. Last up was Emily Hall’s Dad Jokes, which amounted to a one-woman standup routine as eulogy during her father’s funeral, though he died when she was much younger. It was an uncomfortably awkward riot. (According to the Annex season calendar, company members Evan Moritz and Lucia Treasure are slated to have Knee Play productions in May.)

These plays can be odd, curious affairs, but they’re just as capable of knocking your socks off.

Cricket Arrison directed Lisa D’Amour’s Red Death for Psychic Readings for only eight productions over the last weekend in February and first weekend in March. Each production only permitted an audience of 12, one that somehow moved around to four different set designs inside Psychic Readings’ intimate black-box theater. Playwright D’Amour’s script is a belletristic riff on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” and Arrison honed it into a streamlined plunge into comic paranoia and unsettling obsessions.

Carly Bales starred as a schoolteacher slash ostensible secret agent searching for the “origin of hate, the root of denial, and the basic human weakness that causes us to fear death,” a quest that sends her chasing after Prospero Albright (Connor Kizer), a wealthy, former childhood frenemy with whom she shares a secret, one Albright even keeps from his wife (Deirdre McAllister). Taut, hilarious, and ultimately disquieting, Red Death delivered one of the most satisfying—and in the ways the buried past comes up to upend the present, uncomfortably prescient—plays of this still young year.

And I do kinda credit the overall quality of the short plays produced by the likes of the UnSaddest Factory’s Ten Minute Play Festival, Annex’s Knee Plays, and Psychic Readings over the past few years for pushing some of the less DIY-budgeted theater companies toward smaller, intimate, and riskier fare.

Iron Crow Theatre’s 2016-’17 season has set the risky bar high with its productions, but even it has produced a pair of shows that came and went over a weekend. Back in early December, Ann Turiano directed Madeline George’s The Zero Hour for only five performances over a single weekend, and though it included a cast of three the play was really more of an emotional autopsy of the tumultuous relationship between two women, played by Rena Marie and Rebecca Tucker.

More recently, Iron Crow Artistic Director and CEO Sean Elias directed A. Rey Pamatmat’s Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them over the single March 31 through April 2 weekend. Here’s a play by a Filipino-American playwright about a pair of Filipino-American siblings, Kenny (Mohammad R. Suaidi) and his younger sister Edith (Pimmie Juntranggur), navigating sexuality, gender, identity, and class. And, yes, the young, precocious Edith can shoot a firearm.

And, yes, she hits the people at which she aims. I don’t know which, if any, of the plays slated for Iron Crow’s 2017-’18 season will also be short-run productions—a quick shout out to a local company producing Marc Blitzstein’s unabashedly anti-capitalist 1937 musical The Cradle Will Rock in today’s political climate—but pay close attention to any that are. These plays come and go too quickly, and they’re not the kinds of plays other local companies are programming.

That Face

Baltimore Center Stage’s recent opening of its new Third Space is the most interesting entry into the short-run, more adventurous theater fare. I don’t know if Center Stage has ever had a space this  intimate, even in its very early 1960s days when, I think, it occupied the space where the Theatre Project is now. The Third Space is ostensibly a 99-seat black box, but for That Face the seating space felt even smaller. Directed by Everyman Theatre artistic associate Johanna Gruenhut and with five-actor cast with four performers making their Center Stage debuts, this limited-run (April 13-23) production felt and moved like an underground, DIY play with a budget.

Playwright Polly Stenhem’s play charts a single London family’s alcohol, pills, and cruelty-fueled demise after daughter Mia (Emily Juliette Murphy) gets expelled from boarding school following the hazing of a 13-year-old student. Her 18-year-old brother Henry (Josh Tobin) lives with and takes care of their mother Martha (Leenya Rideout, in a stunning performance), a woman whose codependence and anxieties cause her to switch from loving to brutal in the time it takes her to spark up a cigarette. Over the weekend that Mia gets sent home, Martha, Mia, and Henry twist dysfunctional family into interpersonal psychological warfare, turning scenic designer Ryan Michael Haase’s minimal set into a detritus filled battle zone. If That Face is an example of the kinds of plays, themes, performances, and approaches Center Stage wants to pursue in this Third Space, then hear, hear.

Perhaps A Short Reunion will also help Single Carrot remember the kinds of oddball choices its creative team is so adept at pulling off. Not trying to harsh on its choices since the company moved to its shiny new space in 2014, but there was something about the down and dirty digs of its productions at the Theatre Project, the Mobtown Theatre, a space on Antique Row, the Load of Fun, and the old Everyman Theatre location that lent the choices a few rough edges that couldn’t be sanded down. And the creative ways productions responded to physical challenges often gave the plays a welcome and energetic messiness.

That spirit runs through all nine shorts that comprise Reunion, featuring plays penned by playwrights that SCT has produced in the past—Eric Coble (Natural Selection from 2010), Joshua Conkel (MilkMilkLemonade from 2011), Olivia Dufault (Year of the Rooster from 2015), Charles Mee (Hotel Cassiopeia from 2012 and Utopia Parkway from 2015), Shawn Reddy (White Suit Science from 2014), Jen Silverman (Phoebe in Winter from 2015), Caridad Svich (The Tropic of X from 2013), and Adam Szymkowicz (Food For Fish from 2008).

Seeing all the plays involves being led around Remington to a number of different impromptu venues, such as Parts & Labor, the Church of Guardian Angel, Mend Acupuncture, reclaimed building supply Brick + Board, Young Audiences of Maryland, and even a car parked right in front of SCT’s box office. Some are dramas, some are comedies, some are upsetting, some are only so-so, and a few are as close to sublime as a short play can get.

Meg Jabaily and Nathan Fulton

Co-founding Carrots J. Buck Jabaily, Nathan Fulton, Aldo Pantoja, and Meg Jabaily collaborated on “Bruce/Brenda/David,” a compressed version of the story of David Reimer, who committed suicide in 2004. Performed by Fulton, Meg Jabaily, and Pantoja, it’s this modestly disorienting, disarmingly moving portrait of a young person born male and raised female following a botched circumcision, and who asserted his male identity as a teen. The short beautifully and tragically explores how people, not doctors, know who they really are.

“Bruce/Brenda/David,” Dufault’s “The Ninth Planet” (in which Jessica Garrett reminds you she can tug your heart’s strings with a slight change in the tone of her voice), and Reddy’s “Grand Mal” linger in the brain the longest in the days following the experience, but it’s the comic shots that deliver the night’s most entertaining jolts. Mee’s “The Therapist” closes the evening, and features the always-game-for-anything Paul Diem starring as a lifecoach-slash-therapist for artists. He spews the kind of anodyne uplift and strategic banalities common to innovative disrupters and thought leaders currently infecting businesses, nonprofits, higher education, and g-d only knows what else, and Mee has his therapist take this gabfest to the TEDx-talk-for-the-creative-class extreme.

Paul Diem and Ben Kleymeyer

Yes, it’s completely insane that Diem’s up-with-everything cheerleader eventually strips down to his skivvies to lead the audience and the night’s entire cast up Howard Street, but that’s kinda the point. I’m willing to wager that somewhere, right now, there’s an executive vice president for some such shit who has hired just this kind of idea-bankrupt consultant asshat to come lead an organization’s creative office through some team-building exercises that are only slightly less obnoxiously vacuous than what Diem orchestrates here.

Dustin C.T. Morris and Elliot Raugh

And then there’s Conkel’s “Itch So Bad,” in which Elliot Raugh’s Joshua A and Dustin C.T. Morris’ Joshua B don’t let a little thing like a case of scabies get in the way of their a-hunk-a-hunk-of burning love. Every time they start to disrobe and get busy, Britt Olsen-Ecker leads the Scabies band through some pop music bump and grind to score the comic tryst. OK, sure, this may not be the Platonic ideal of what a short play could or should be, but in a roundelay night of shorts, this divertissement is a reminder that DIY theater can shoot and score even when it’s merely aiming for the absurdly slapstick, bong-hit silly, and totally pointless.

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Author Author Bret McCabe is a haphazard tweeter, epic-fail blogger, and a Baltimore-based arts and culture writer.

Photos by Tyrone R. Eaton

Top Image: Nathan Fulton & Aldo Pantoja

A Short Reunion runs through April 30 at Single Carrot Theater.

Blood for Dracula opens April 28 and runs through May 7 at Psychic Readings.