I’m always down to see plays by local playwrights and I was thrilled to get the opportunity to review Palindrome when another BITR Sister called out sick. Hell, I had already bought tickets for me and my date to see the show. Let’s do the damn thing!
Palindrome, written by Rapid Lemon Productions founder Mr. Max Garner, is a pair of one act plays; Sphere about the life of Thelonious Monk and Pentz about Marvin Gaye. Fun fact: Sphere and Pentz were the middle names of these famous gentlemen. Also, Palindrome is an anagram for Rapid Lemon. Aside from the witty word play, Palindrome was an intriguing story about influential music artists with troubled pasts, histories of mental illness, and an affinity for drugs.
The first offering of the pair of one acts was Sphere. Here the audience was transported to a therapist’s office where Sphere aka Thelonious Monk (Mr. Martique Smith) talks through his past with therapist Hannah (Ms. Veronica T. Lockett). I was ready to dive head first into an emotional storytelling pool, unfortunately the script kept me from getting wet. Exposition lived in the many monologues and I felt the play existed to display a biography without really feeling Monk’s experiences. I couldn’t connect with it the way I wanted to. Hannah and Sphere never really fully communicated with each other, whereas Hannah spoke directly to the audience to explain medical terms or asked Sphere open ended questions to enable him to live in the perpetual monologues about this life timeline. I was also confused as to why Hannah was aggressively digging up painful memories of Sphere’s past. Was it to get him to stay present or to antagonism him only to calm him down later? All I know is that I would not pay money to go to this therapist!
Speaking of the therapist Hannah (Ms. Veronica T. Lockett) I would have liked to see who she was and the relationship between her and Sphere more developed in the writing. I wished Ms. Lockett dug in more and was more present in her performance. She was a little unsure of her lines which made it hard for me to connect with the material and to the character. Having a few more runs will help with that. The best part of the show was the performance by Mr. Martique Smith. Even though his monologues described his background like a Wikipedia article, his manicness was believable and his emotional outbursts were bold. My date said Sphere’s ticks made her antsy and maybe that was the point. For us to feel what was going on in his mind. He was exhausting to watch. You could see his emotional journey on stage and it made up for the lack of chemistry between him and Hannah. The manic moments were energetic, but it was the quiet moments that kept me engaged. The show was rounded out by the Chorus (Ms. Ime Essien and Ms. Mia Robinson) plus Hannah dressed in hats and colorful costumes. What was their purpose? Sphere’s inner thoughts manifested perhaps? I’m not sure, but I enjoyed the break in the story. Direction by Mr. David D. Mitchell was minimally applied. I questioned some of the blocking choices for the actors. The play felt thick and stagnant and a stern directorial hand could have made the piece more flowing and dynamic. Sphere said that “truth is the note you don’t play” and this play had a few uneven chords.
I knew from the first few lines from the Reporter (Ms. Ime Essien) that the tone of Pentz would be different from Sphere. The script begins at the end of the real life story. For those not up on their music history, Marvin Gaye was shot and killed by his father Marvin Gay Senior. Pentz uses this tragic event as the central pivot point of the play. Although the play meanders between different time periods in Marvin’s life out of order, each scene helps to support and inform his ultimate demise. I liked how the sequencing of life events put the shooting in context. Like all of us, Marvin’s past influenced his future.
Pentz was my favorite of the two plays. I am not ashamed to openly admit that. It felt more vibrant and had movement, feeling, and complexity. Bottom line this show was well cast. They gave life to the written characters which is exactly what they are supposed to do. They may have even made the words sound better.
Mr. Mike Smith had a stand out performance in Pentz. He was unrecognizable and effortlessly moved between characters. He was fully committed. He became the abusive Father or the nonsense music mogul Berry Gordy or the fed-up Medic. He was especially impressive as Father. I’ve become so used to seeing Mr. Smith on stage as the funny guy. But Mr. Smith portrayed Father as a menacing, biting, religious man that should be feared. Mr. Smith stood on stage like Father. An overhead light shone on him and he looked like the devil incarnate. I was not laughing. Marvin Gaye, played effortlessly by Mr. Justin Johnson, started the show off as a smooth and awkward young man on the Motown record label trying to sell himself and his music. But fame, women, and drugs changed him. Mr. Johnson, who I bet is as sweet as a peach in real life, portrayed Marvin with fire. He was dripping with egotism and misogyny. The anger had real intensity and an unpolished rawness about it. On an unrelated note, Mr. Johnson did grace the audience with his singing voice a few times during the show. His voice was sweet, clear, and honest. I wouldn’t mind if he sang me to sleep one night. That’s not weird right? I don’t want it to get weird. Like I said earlier, the acting in Pentz was impeccable. Ms. Mia Robinson (Marvin Gaye’s Mother/Anna) had a poise and gravitas in every character she played. She had a presence about her on stage and I missed it when she was gone. I’m getting weird again, sorry. I especially liked her as the cunning first wife and music entrepreneur Anna. She played her as a bad-ass queen bitch and I enjoyed her tenacity. The chemistry between Mr. Johnson and Ms. Robinson was palpable. Either as soon to be lovers or as mother and son, their chemistry was electric and alive. Last, but certainly not least was the effervescent performance by Ms. Ime Essien (Tammi/Reporter/Jan). Her Reporter was fun, but she really came alive as Jan, the complex young girl who became Marvin’s 2nd wife. Ms. Essien captured Jan’s vulnerability and hidden strength with ease. The program said this was Ms. Essien’s Baltimore stage debut. I look forward to seeing her work on stage in the near future. Welcome to the Baltimore theater community!
My favorite part about Pentz was the incorporation of Marvin’s ghost in the story. He felt alive, powerful, and present. He interacted with each character on the stand in the courtroom during his father’s trial and pulled the vulnerability from each character like he was sucking out their souls. Kudos goes to co-directors Mr. Lance Bankerd and Ms. Lee Conderacci in making those “hauntings” so visceral and confrontational. Not only was this play well acted, but it was well staged. The actors movement had intention and the directors were able to pull emotions from them that were up front and believable.
Pentz showed me the layers of a man, a musical legend, and the people who surrounded him. This play may have started as an exposition about Marvin Gaye’s death, but at the heart Pentz was truly a story of the complex relationship between father and son. One quote summed up Pentz perfectly: “When one man kills another, one of them is dead.”
The set for both had the essentials. That meant an upright piano, small desk, typewriter and record player for Sphere and a table and chairs to convey different settings for Pentz. Both one acts made heavy use of a white backdrop where items were projected to aid in the storytelling thanks to the work of Mr. Bob Denton, Projection designer: psychology terminology and people or places from the past (Sphere) and time periods and locations (Pentz). Costume Designer Ms. Deana Fisher Brill did an ample job of creating the worlds for each show with a sharp suit, a wig or a dress indicative of the time period. The costumes fit the characters and the mood of the plays just so. Lighting designer Mr. Allan Sean Weeks used soft, warm and straight forward lighting for Sphere but upped the ante with aggressive lighting that matched the emotional changes on stage for Pentz. I especially liked the harsh lighting in the emotional scene between father and son at the end of the play. Lastly, I was so excited that the music of Monk and Gaye were interwoven into both plays. Nice touch!
Were Pentz and Sphere perfect? No. But what they lacked they made up for in enthusiasm, fun, and musicality. A solid night of theater.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? Go if you were ever a fan of MTV’s “Behind the Music” TV series. Go if you love the music of Monk or Gaye. Support local playwrights like Max Garner! He created an emotional and audacious set of one act plays. The scripts may be a bit uneven and may need some nips and tucks, but they are 2 artistic diamonds in the rough. The acting was stellar and the scripts creatively and boldly told the story of two iconic musicians lives. Put on some jazz or some classic Rhythm and Blues before you arrive to get yourself in the mood. Let’s get it on! (Z)
Now playing at Baltimore Theatre Project through May 20th. Running time: 2 hours and 20ish minutes with one 15-minute intermission.