Given a Sharpie and a table of paper at Bats!, Submersive Productions’ new show, participating audience members are given directions to write a haiku on the subject of bats, I penned the below, aware that haiku does not traditionally rhyme and its 5-7-5 meter was more than a bit skewed. But I also figured, with a title like Bats, coloring within the lines wasn’t in the spirit of things anyway.
I do not bat an eye,
Though bats a-plenty I see,
I only hope
That in the dark,
The batties don’t see me.
Submersive Productions, an artist collaborative in Baltimore, specializes in bringing theatric experiences to unusual and underused public spaces. The small Marquee Lounge, with its wild red mural, was opened by Creative Alliance specifically for this production. It’s a tiny intimate space, and Submersive makes good use of the long bar, and expands the one-member cast with a number of wonderful puppets by Ursula Marcum.
Michele Minnick, author and performer of the piece, sets before us the Question of All Questions: what is real, and is she/are we insane or not? It’s a heavy theme for a short hour and a half presentation, and it isn’t always successful: it’s largely less theater and more lecture, and the first 15 minutes seem more like a tour operator’s spiel than a piece of theater.
I’ve been hugely impressed by Submersive before, and this show has inklings of what they are best at: engaging with an audience without a stage to get in the way. There are moments of sheer enjoyment, as when Minnick speaks directly to two of her symptoms, represented by puppets: M.D. (Major Depression) is a silky black octopus that slowly flattens itself when asked how it is. And Jessica, the Anxiety puppet, is a scream, with her goggly orange eyes, sticking-up hair and quivering limbs made of Slinkies. You get nervous just looking at her, and the design is a perfect impression of anxiety run amok.
And there’s a lot of fun stuff going on – Minnik sings and accompanies herself with dexterity, and you haven’t lived til you’ve sung the words to “Lithium” along with her. Who knew the accordion and mental illness were such a perfect combination? They’re pretty much made for each other so far as I can tell. At times, though, the show veers abruptly from cabaret mode into schoolroom question-and-answer. Without much of a segue, the audience was understandably reluctant to reveal their ‘strange thoughts’ with Minnik.
closes March 31, 2018
Details and tickets
There are lots of little touches, like tiny bat projections at the back of the bar that creepily get bigger and bigger, and a spectacular mini movie with illustrations by Chelsea Demitas, but overall, the piece never quite coalesced into a whole. There’s a good bit with an overhead projector and slides showing antiquated Victorian treatments for madness- which bear no little resemblance to medieval torture devices- but the point is never quite made. Are we to laugh? To decry now outmoded ideas? To shake our heads at how far we’ve come? Just showing illustrations doesn’t really direct us where Minnick is headed.
And perhaps that’s the difficulty. No director is given- but one is surely needed. There are a lot of good bits and pieces in this production- for example, in the event of an emergency, a mirrored disco ball rotates and cheesy 60s instrumentals are played to soothe us. And after a particularly stressful monologue, Minnick is bundled up in a warm fluffy robe and given a stuffed animal to cuddle. That’s the stuff of humor, and much, much more humor and less talking at us is what’s really needed. Take yourself too seriously, and therein lies madness for real.
This is a work in progress, no question, and my faith in Submersive remains undeterred. Perhaps all that’s needed is a good editor and guide; at the moment, it’s a fun romp through the symptoms of losing your mind, but it’s a ramble through the brambles rather than a well prepared hike of climbing rough terrain and coming out into the sunshine at the very end.
Bats! . Conceived & Written by Michele Minnick . Devised & Performed by: Michele Minnick, Caitlin Bouxsein, Ursula Marcum, Jessica Rassp, Glenn Ricci . Illustrations: Chelsea Demitras . Sound/Lighting/Projections: Glenn Ricci . Scenic, Properties Design, Puppet Design and Fabrication: Ursula Marcum . Additional props Fabrication: Caitlin Bouxsien, Jessica Rassp . Consultant: Leeny Sack . Accordion Wrangler: Dallas Vietty . Medicine Bottles loaned by: Ernest Dimler . Produced by Submersive Productions . Reviewed by Jill Kyle-Keith.