Hey guys- wanna know a secret? I live for this shit! I love these “local playwright festivals.” Whenever it says “new work” and “local artist” my ass will undeniably be in a seat. There is something to be said for going to the big institutions to see a classic, but I revel in the thought that there is so much talent in my backyard. I am a Bawlmer girl, born and raised, and I have always been drawn to the bright lights of the city. I adore the arts scene in Baltimore, I want more, I want to see it thrive- and- as my always disclaimer- if you don’t support it now, you can’t say you were there the first time when they hit it big. And trust me, some of these people are mega-talented.
Variations is an annual event at Rapid Lemon. Each year there is a theme, this year’s was sacrifice. The plays pour in and then the comes the arduous task of reading and deciding what is going into the show. This year had so many contenders that for the first time ever there is an extended third weekend of staged readings for the “runner up” plays. I am stoked to attend that as well, watch this space for feedback on that next week.
But as the always gregarious Lance Bankerd said in his curtain speech, the audience is the best ambassador. Tell your friends! Well friends, get a ticket this weekend to see this amazing show. A cast of seven actors fill roles in 11 plays all written, directed, and produced locally. Damn, it just doesn’t get any closer to home.
Here is a brief rundown of each show- first was “Turnbuckle” by Mike Smith- about a female wrestler named Cherry Hill, trying to make a comeback after injury. It plays folly to the dual nature of wrestling as a planned event and a physical undertaking. I am not a wrestling fan, so I was a little lost. It was cute and quirky, and a nice pace setter for the evening. Second was “Springtime Cyclic” by Lee Conderacci (also an actress in the show). This was a performance art piece with a woman doing intensely choreographed movements while reciting a dramatic monologue about her losses in life. It was beautiful and pleasurable to get lost in. I think we can all equate with her on some level about the things we do to take up the hurt and time we have left when we are aching. And it ended with Florence and the Machine’s “Hunger,” a personal favorite song and band. Next was “Dark Side of Light” by Aladrian C. Wetzel. Her spoof is a big what if game- what if there was a racial war and bi-racial people had to pick a side. As if that is too lofty, it is presented in the format of a game show, replete with a sleazy con man host that passed out autographed photos to us during the commercial break. It was funny at parts, and hard to watch and disturbing at others. But the heart of it shines through- is everything we say and do racially motivated and innate? It is a thought provoking idea. “Turbulence” is next by Shelby Chapman. It is about a young neurotic girl flying for the first time and her seat mate pouring out his life turmoil to try and calm her. It turns out, serendipitously that they will meet again when they arrive in Oklahoma. And last before the intermission was “New Leaf” by Will Trace. This one was abstract, a woman contemplates her life, writes a letter, and calmly, coolly, detachedly almost, takes her own life. It was hard to watch, and my date and I argued over whether the noise and setting free behind the curtain was a human or animal (she thought man, I thought mouse). The sign on the door warns of “triggers” but doesn’t list them- this one was harsh and blatant and I had a hard time erasing the image as I went to bed.
Post intermission, there was “Fabricated Veal” by Rufus Drawlings. Set in the 1920s a woman at a local factory takes in the night air outside a dance and bonds with a war veteran who has come to enjoy himself as much as possible. I wondered if the title was supposed to be “veil” not “veal,” as they discussed the lives they hide behind masks. Or maybe it’s an inside joke I didn’t get. Next was “For Puerto Rico” by Naimah Ezigbo which featured news clips and facts about the devastating hurricane hitting the island. The mother here makes the ultimate sacrifice. It is short and sweet and served as a public service announcement. “A Familiar Member” was the comic gold of the evening. My friend and I couldn’t stop laughing over this twisty chaotic sexually fueled moment between two married people after he has had a penis transplant. You read that right. Mike Smith is a master of this comedic craft, but more on the actors in a moment. “Sack” by Meredith Barr & Max Garner was a wordless play with haunting images of immigrants and mothers set to music. A woman carries a sack that metamorphoses into a child and is ultimately protected as she fights for her life. “Samson” by Tatiana Nya Ford has a biblically referenced title, but the play strays far from the procured story. A couple seems entwined in the beginning, but start to show fractures as they once again discuss his ex-girlfriend and her current predicament. The woman (Gia) has to decide whether to lie for him or tell the truth, knowing it might lead to his demise. And the last one of the night was “Let’s Kill Doug because he Sucks” by Justin Lawson Isett. In this parallel universe a corporation has a partnership with Cthulhu, and when profits are down, a sacrifice has got to be made. As the table discusses who to kill, one member has prepared as presentation for this very occasion. It was funny and comedically timed to perfection.
Whew! So that was the plays- let’s talk about this shape-shifting skilled group of actors. Lee Conderacci is a joy to watch on stage. She shifts flawlessly from a female wrestler to a factory girl, to a thwarted lover (and more). Her changing expression and wardrobe only accentuate the obvious, she is masterful at taking a role to heart. Mike Smith is a comedic prodigy. Ever time he took the stage he was amazing, even in his tender moments as a scarred war veteran. But I love him the most in his farcical roles, a lover with a new appendage, and man with a mission (albeit to kill Doug). His timing and physicality is unmatched. Justin Johnson also easily slips from a bi-racial contestant who has had enough, to a zoot suit smooth talker, and back to a man divided from his past and present. His easy gait and smile often make him charming, even when portraying a monster. Chara Bauer is ageless. She swiftly becomes a teen with anxiety, to a nerdy adult working for a corporation, to a dancer, and mother, and performance artist. Her quiet presence exudes a portrayal of several different women, all of different ages. Donna Ibale is impeccable in her performance piece and is the perfect comedic folly partner for Mike in the last piece. Tom Piccin’s finest performance of the evening was his depiction of Don Summers, but is also reliable and relatable as Anthony. Mia Robinson is a master of different roles as well, but shines as Oya and Brenda- her parts equally comical and powerful. This is quite a cast!
The set up this year included a curtain with an announcement of each play and the author. The added music as each scene shifted was a nice touch. The costume designer, Lucy Wakeland, pulled a variety of pieces and dazzled me with the ability to pull off some very quick changes- is everything magnets or Velcro? (costumer humor) Lights were blinding bright right before the show started- otherwise dutiful and subtle. The twilight is a nice transition piece from play to play. The night snips on at a decent pace, many of the plays are thought provoking and interesting and when the lights change, it is a shame to see some of them go.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? You should go! And get there fast, this is the last weekend for the show! And try to get there next week as well (8/16-8/19) for the staged readings. New local artists are showcasing some really amazing raw talent in your own backyard- I mean what are you waiting for? Come see these directors, actors, and playwrights before you can’t afford their tickets in New York.
Running at Theater Project through Aug 12. Staged Readings 8/16-8/19. A little over two hours with one ten-minute intermission.