Most visitors to the Baltimore Book Festival weren’t expecting to stumble upon some great theatre parked in the middle of Mount Vernon Square. But if you had the good fortune to visit Center Stage’s booth at a few select times, the big clanging doors of a shipping container swung open just for you and fourteen other lucky fair-goers.
Center Stage offered only five chances between Friday and Sunday, Sept 27 – 29, to see what happens in The Container, English playwright Clare Bayley’s gripping 2009 drama about five refugees hiding in the back of an England-bound freight truck rumbling north through Europe. But the show’s taut pacing, emotional depth, and smart casting provide a punchy kick-off to the theatre’s new Third Space(s) initiative, which will offer a total of three stagings this season that export theatre to some of the city’s more unexpected settings.
This first piece in the series is thrilling, but not merely for its displacement from the theatre’s main building. As directed by Johanna Gruenhut, The Container is a grim and menacing microcosm, furnished with freight (and fifteen chairs) by Ryan Haase and graced with the dimmest of locked-up lighting by Lesley Boeckman. Most of the limited color visible in the space comes from costume designer Anna Tringali, who dresses the ragtag group of international travelers with a bit of cultural flair — although the compressed and suspenseful environment mutes even these vestigial stamps of home.
We cross national borders more than once during the trip, but for these riders the continent is nothing more than a stretch of interminable semi-darkness, and it’s for the combined efforts of this electric cast of six that The Container thumps so loudly with humanity. No program is distributed (smartly) before the show, so it’s multiple rewarding to recognize, one by one, some of the area’s most interesting and skillful actors moving and breathing inches away.
Deidra LaWan Starnes as Fatima and Lauren E. Banks as Asha do great work as a two-member family scrounging for some continued optimism, although they carry little more than a bag of rice. Mariam (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan) flees the Taliban, traveling solo with only a gun in her pocket and a guarded attitude toward her companions. Ahmad (Matthew Vaky) is hoping to translate his business experience from Turkish into English upon arrival, and it’s to Vaky’s credit that we are in turns sympathetic to and outraged by his miserly streak, which more than once threatens to mark the end of the road for the other travelers.
The sensory experience of being locked up with these characters is heightened by the harsh ambience of pavement under many miles of asphalt. But when the sound of the road cuts out, and the doors of the stopped container swing blindingly open to admit an anonymous travel agent and protector (played wonderfully by a cryptic Alexander Strain), the refugees face a life-or-death challenge: how to pool enough money to bribe their driver onward.
It’s at this point in the show that the fifth traveler, a Kurd named Jemal, tries to reconcile everyone’s fears and self-interest enough to get the show rolling again. And the ferocity with which actor Maboud Ebrahimzadeh shakes up the group — his explosive temper threatening to trip up his charitable impulses — fuels an astonishing middle act of an already strong show. Ebrahimzadeh has put in some powerhouse performances recently (his work in Keegan Theatre’s A Few Good Men last month and in Round House Theatre’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo last fall come readily to mind), and it’s with roles like this that he keeps proving himself as one of the most exciting rising stars in the area.
“Migration is the great subject of our age,” Bayley said in an interview on The Good Web Guide last year. “It’s all around us, and yet so often in our safe, day-to-day lives, we are insulated from knowing or understanding just what people are living through. In The Container I was writing about the trauma of the journey itself.”
That trauma is potent here, but also braced with a few select moments of hopefulness. It’s both uncompromisingly bleak and emotionally rich. And its trim running time — about an hour — is just right for the confined space.
But it’s over now. Such is the excitement of limited-time, site-specific events like this. So follow along with Center Stage during the next two Third Space(s) shows as they’re announced. One will be a world-premiere play by Baltimore native Ken Greller, who’s got a different, equally specific location in mind (hint: it connects to the historic architecture of the Center Stage complex itself).
Details on the third piece are, for the moment, even more elusive. But if you’re patient, like the riders in The Container, the doors will open soon enough.
These performances were held Sept 27 – 29, 2013. The Container by Clare Bayley . Directed by Johanna Gruenhut . Produced by Center Stage . Reviewed by Hunter Styles.