Sub Rosa

The Oven is a small theater company that launched in 2015, and, I am ashamed to admit, this was my first visit.  I am sorry it took me this long to attend.  This group of individuals said, per their website, that they are a “social-action theater collective” who wanted to make “theater that started conversation.”  Their process are all devised pieces that are ripped from the headlines and go through an intense process to become stage ready.

Sub Rosa- taken from a Latin phrase meaning under the rose or in confidentiality- is a play about mass trauma.  But you wouldn’t know that from the first half.  The first half is just four modern adults trying to get along in the name of a surprise party for a co-worker.  They all know “David” from somewhere, work, school, college, etc. and have tried put aside their personality differences to make a nice party.  That’s when they discover there’s been a mass shooting.  The play then sort of dissolves from a reality show into a choral performance piece about the state of affairs in our nation and how we respond, as a nation and as individuals, to mass shootings. There is a trigger warning on the program that reads:  “This show contains language and content that may be triggering to some audience members.”  Just wanted to let you know before attending.

The four actors in the piece are also Oven Company members and all worked to create the performance, so they are intimately joined with the play.  Chelsea Blackwell plays Jenn a social media vixen with an eye for perfection.  Her coping strategy for everything appears to be more alcohol.  Chelsea does a nice job of making her not only a millennial attached to her device, but a real person with faults, flaws, and confessions.  She drinks and corrects but it is because she doesn’t know what else to do and sitting still isn’t an option. She moves the most of this bunch and her palpable nervous energy shines through some of her masks.  P.S. Cute boots- there’s no costumer listed, I assume it was a joint effort by company members also?

Clifford Doby is Taj in this piece.  A mild mannered friend of Jenn’s who is there for assistance, physically and morally as he objects to her over-dependency on her phone.  Clifford has an easy gait that allows Taj to feel more like an old friend than a new one.  He nails the quiet responsiveness we all need in a friend.  He can be moved to anger, especially when he erupts toward the end of the play and knocks props all askew.  The talkback I attended had a woman that critiqued the show and offered advice for the actors and director (it was kind of comical).  But she did refer to Taj as a “weathervane,” and I kind of like that imagery.

Jordan is the misfit of the bunch in one way, brought to life by Kat Kaplan.  They nailed the frat boy mentality, which is backward baseball cap, beer-swilling, shit-talking, blatant cockiness.  Their divine knowledge of anything female caps off this colorful addition to the party.  Critic lady, that’s what I’m calling her, pointed to a rather poignant scene where right after the news of the mass shooting, Kat’s facial expression relays all of their inner feelings and nicely transitions into the next portion of the play.  Before I keep going one by one, I have to talk about them as an ensemble. They click.  They mesh.  It is obvious they have spent time together and respect one another.  The most prominent thing coming out of an extensive course of editing and rehearsing, is this bond that is hard to fake on stage.  They seem to almost finish each other’s sentences. And when they are laughing and playing games, you want to open a drink and join in.  It is engaging and wonderful to watch.

Rounding out the cast is Alex Shade as Colby.  He is a nerd.  Damn I love nerds.  Colby’s mannerisms are either a keen study in nerdcore culture, or as he stated in the post-show discussion, “it was just me in High School.”  And I thought I couldn’t want to hug you more.  As he morphed out of Colby and became Alex after the show, you could see the intense physical changes that he had undergone to portray Colby with ease.  It is not as easy as it looks to be awkward all the time.

Jessica Parsell led the post-show discussion, and asked the audience for feedback.  Because it is a devised piece, their insistence for opinions is important.  They take stake in their work and add construct criticism to the next devised piece- Exquisite Baltimore directed by Deidre McAllister per the program.  Jessica asked the audience about “lean in” and “lean out” moments. I think the majority of the play, especially the second half is lean in, the only thing that takes me out of the storyline is the sound and light bleed.  Because EMP’s space is in the heart of downtown, there was SO MUCH traffic, siren, car horn, even just yelling and if often reminded me that I was a patron in a theater and not in the apartment with them.

The Oven sees themselves as social justice warriors, and the church they use for rehearsals also serves that mission by “providing 350 poor and homeless people a week…a hot meal.”  So money toward this company and this production is a positive change for Baltimore as well.

Look, unfortunately mass shootings have become common place.  And in a city like Baltimore, that tops the charts for murder every year, it is even more imperative to discuss.  Are thoughts and prayers enough?  What can a small group do to change the wave of the future so that this isn’t the main story in the evening news every night?  This play explores some dark moments, and some inner recesses of our moral and social compass.  It forces us to ask questions, pay attention, get involved, and most of all- REACT!

SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?  What kind of theater patron are you?  This blends a newer approach to theater with social awareness and a message to viewers.  Do you want to change the world?  Do you want to watch as a young acting troupe takes on massive social and political change in the heart of your hometown?  Go.  Everyone should go.  Donate to their cause and DO something instead of just posting about it on social media. (I)

Running time just over one hour with no intermission.  Runs at EMP Collective through May 6th.

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