Ah, the land of crab cakes and Boh (originally). Where we bleed orange all summer and purple all winter. Where the city is dangerous but artsy, dirty but beautiful, and strange but quirky. Baltimore is a land of contradictions, and as the program states from director Deidre McAllister, “a place so divided and misunderstood that those from here often find themselves defending and condemning it in the same breath.”
Exquisite Baltimore is the newest original piece from The Oven Theatre Company. It is meant to highlight the oddities that we have all come to love in our hometown. The production is a series of vignettes that showcase some of the more colorful people from Baltimore’s torrid past including Miss Tony, John Waters, Billie Holliday, Edgar Allan Poe, and Mary Pickergill, to name a few. There are funny characters too like a flamingo, a rat, Kermit the Frog- who’s claim to Baltimore is that lore states he was named after a sound engineer at WBAL. The snack bar served Bohs, Utz and La Croix- which might be the only misnomer (it is made in Wisconsin).
The show opens with two people in a Baltimore basement using the Ouija board (made in Bawlmer), to summon some dead spirits. This is the premise that we suspend disbelief and walk back through history to see some of the hometown legends.
The set is small and on a tongue and groove planked basement stage- which seems to fit the theme of the play. To find the unusual of Baltimore to be some of its mystique and charm. The three town homes in the back are significant, one is 420 (lol), the other is boarded up, and the last simply says 1802 which I did not quite get the reference to. Christmas lights are strung throughout the space and several scenes take place around the playing area. You have to swivel in your seat to take them in, and I keep threatening to bring cushions to sit on! After 1.5 hours in a metal folding chair my ass was a quite happy to get up and move around. Bob Shade is credited with set design and building, and Daniel Weissglass with lights. The lighting was not too complex, but worked with what was being scripted. My take on this was “baller on a budget.”
Ian Andrews depicts Edgar Allan Poe as an emo manic with a lovely red scarf. His enthusiasm is contagious, but he gets so into his scene that his words take a back seat to his volume and gesticulations. Andrews is lovely as an extra in other scenes, with some serious dance moves to boot. Chelsea Blackwell is Mary Pickergill and Biscuits the flamingo. Her depiction of a flag maker from 1813 is spot on, along with her hon inspired accent as a Baltimore flamingo. Jess Parsell does a lovely Gertrude Stein, and ensemble with care and conscious movements. All of these actors flip quickly in and out of different roles, accents, times, and places. They make it look easy and I am sure it isn’t.
One of the awards of the evening goes to Alex Shade, who is the quirky Rat with a pizza slice (isn’t that a NY viral video?), and John Waters- where he pencils in a moustache at least five times throughout the evening (without a mirror y’all- and me with crooked eyebrows and a huge mirror). He also plays an over-zealous game show host for “B-More in Love.” The other standout goes to Clifford Doby who does a fantastic Miss Tony. I was not a club kid, but my husband was and he remembers her stints at the Paradox and her mixes that we joyfully listened to on the way home from the production. He also plays Tupac (who attended school here), and several others along the way.
The true star of the evening was Zipporah Brown, who sang along with Billie Holiday’s songs like she embodied her soulful melodies. From her scene as a young Holiday scrubbing steps, to her scene on Holiday’s deathbed- she encompasses this role whole heartedly. And in between these two to three scenarios she plays like, you know, only five other ensemble parts. But she slips back into the role she was made for, Miss Lady Day.
Was it perfect? No. Is that the point? Maybe. It was meant to show the gritty- like the “fucking truth” about Baltimore Schools, or the housing issues; and yet giddy- like the anthem to Kevin Plank that has the audience in stitches. But all in all it was a well-thought out play that had ups and downs and one hell of a cast that did not have much down time as they popped on and off the scene continuously throughout the night.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? This new piece has moxie. It is an interesting romp through the history of Baltimore pointing out the things that make this city so charming, so wondrous and so exquisite. Deidre McAllister has directed and written quite a little montage ode to the city, and we had a glorious time reminiscing. And as Slade/Waters said, you can be trashy but sexy and gross. Ah, that about sums up the city nicely. (I)
Running time 90 minutes without intermission. At 1900 St. Paul Street through November 10th.