DCTS welcomes Baltimore columnist John Barry
In the dark, sweaty, jam-packed basement of the Bell Foundry Building – located in a neighborhood off Baltimore’s Penn Station – Un Saddest Factory Ten Minute Play Festival organizer Lola Pierson has a few things to tell her audience. If you can’t stand the play after two minutes, she says, — “since many of you are from the ADD Generation” — try to think about something else for the next eight minutes. Turn off cell phones. And, to help cover the live-in renters who have been enduring two weeks of rehearsals and set construction — buy a Natty Boh.
National Bohemian (now brewed in Milwaukee by Pabst) has become the signature drink for Baltimore’s mini-Bohemia. The Un Saddest Factory company definitely caters to that clientele. The stuffy, unventilated, graffiti-scribbled warehouse basement is packed in large part with members (and friends of members) of Wham City Arts Collective, Annex Theater, and other musicians, artists, and collaborators from Baltimore’s underground arts scene.
When this particular writer came to Baltimore ten years ago, experimental theatres of the sixties and seventies had pretty much died out, and with them, the younger audience had more or less dissolved. Since 2005, Wham City has injected the city with experimental theater, comedy, music, art, video, and, occasionally, all five at once.
The Ten Minute Theater Festival put that all on display in one two-night smorgasbord last weekend: the productions were brilliant, messy, talented, punctuated by misfires and the occasional blown circuits which, in the final accounting, were as essential to the experience as the triumphs.
Outside during intermissions, smoking cigarettes and swilling beer, audience members and actors swirled around. Anyone passing by could easily mistake this for a between-sets break at a local club — and, indeed, the crowd was full of members of the musical community.
Decidedly unpretentious, unpolished – most of the plays had five or six rehearsals to their credit – the clusters of artists seemed to be searching for ideas, not for the perfect production.
A couple of interesting points. ‘B’ night [the festival had two parts] featured two contributions to the ever-burgeoning genre of plays about the Internet. Shut the Front Door by Tim Kabara is a look back at 1994, where a couple of grunge-era teenagers get warned about the eventual arrival of ‘cyber-enslavement.’ The somewhat dazed Jim Rivera (Joseph Martin, complete with an early Beastie Boys t-shirt) gets told by the ‘Man From the Future’ (Eric Poch) that he needs to murder Mark Zuckerberg.
Eric Avery’s Looking is a chaotic, entertaining dramatization of sex in the Internet Age. Three brave explorers try to negotiate the unknown territory while they’re being besieged by pop-ups, Craigslist, web chatter, and medical advice.
The event was low budget, but featured some ambitious attempts to conquer new horizons in set design. Dan Deacon – yes, electro-pop composer now on tour in Ireland and a founder of Wham City – offered Nibs, a trippy journey from a restaurant, to the inside of the gums, to a mouth ladder. The plot line more or less fell by the wayside, but the highlight of Deacon’s play consisted of a waiter (Alex Hacker) actually speaking while a video of himself was playing on his t-shirt. Lola Pierson’s Tide Pool featured an Eel – if I’m getting this right – having a love affair with the moon while the moon speaks through a boom box.
Unsurprisingly, the Festival was rich with weird, stimulating conceptual riffs. First, in Josh Van Horne’s puppet-driven Pelican Brief, a miserly Stubly Mangrove (Kelly Fuller) gets accused in a court of law of philanthropy. (In a city where some of the city’s most benevolent foundations boast the names after Baltimore’s biggest real-estate villain, that hits a chord.)
Also interesting in that one is the gradual mixing of human and puppet on stage. Bem’s Hypothesis (Erin Gleeson) has an interesting premise: the opportunity to go back in time and study for tests that one has already taken.
There were a few more polished works. Bath Time is Fun Time by Arthur Jolly was a brilliant and hilarious look at life (and religion) from the perspective of bath toys. Packing/Pecking by playwright and founder of Towson University’s MFA in experimental theater, Juanita Rockwell, involved a man and woman (Carrie Drzik and Alex Hacker) offering monologues about their (irritatingly) creative mates while being tormented by goose-feathers and yarn.
Cricket Arrison’s Order was a tour-de-force performance by Baltimore performer — and an UnSaddestFactory co-founder — Arrison herself, who earned loud applause as she juggled five characters in a library.
As for the actors, there were a few standouts – Scott Redding as Aldo. In Snowpocalypse, Stephen Strohemer and Connor Kizer put on a strong two-person show as two friends (or ex-friends) caught in their basement with an assortment of old board games. In Packing/Pecking, Carrie Drzik and Alex Hacker gave strong, finished performances. In A Funny Discussion, Pilar Diaz and Mason Ross offered a strong example of movement theatre.
The Ten Minute Festival is done for the year – although the scripts are available online. So an extended review isn’t really in order, although these playwrights are really worth following. I lived through the DIY heyday in DC, and the collective attempts to stretch boundaries – possibly at the risk of polish and professionalism — were inspiring.
For years, Wham City has been packing audiences in venues like this one, stretching boundaries and handing out National Bohemians to Baltimore Bohemians. But that’s less of a sign of a new young theatre audience than it is a sign of the (refreshingly) blurred boundaries between music/art/video/theatre. Baltimore, which prides itself in artists in their formative stages, is always at its best when it’s redefining the genre.
So as I embark on a column on theater in Baltimore, the basement of the Bell Foundry is a good place to begin. Baltimore is a city where theatre, like most of the arts here, is a work in progress. It doesn’t get a lot of press outside the Baltimore beltway, and certainly doesn’t have the money or resources that theater in DC, New York, or Philadelphia boast.
There’s a lot going on with Baltimore theatre – you just have to know where to look. This column will help you find it.
The Un Saddest 10 Minute Play Festival ran Aug 11 – 14, 2011.
John Barry is a Baltimore based theatre critic and writer.