BWW Reviews: Minding 'THE GAP' at Glass Mind Theatre
Glass Mind Theatre’s “Brainstorms” have become spring traditions, as each year the Baltimore-based company gives a new twist to its community-inspired, short-play festival. For last season’s Baltimore Mixtape, local playwrights selected two songs from a “playlist” of titles previously submitted by theatergoers, then shaped the music and lyrics into dramas. Between acts, local musicians performed—a different artist each weekend.
For this season’s Brainstorm 3: Mind the Gap, company members solicited, via Facebook and Twitter, locations ranging from the everyday (a treehouse; Morocco) to the whimsical (the back of a piece of paper; Funkytown) to the surreal (Dali’s The Persistence of Memory). Five pairs of playwrights then selected two locations each. One writer per pair began a play with the arrival of characters at the first location; the other writer ended the play with the characters’ departure from the second location. Once again, local musicians perform between acts; this year, however, festival director Andrew Peters has invited new artists each night, making for nine unique shows.
This is an interesting idea, and each of the five plays that make up Mind the Gap contains kernels of inspiration. But there are gaps between inspiration and execution, and the two-pronged approach to playwriting ultimately (perhaps predictably) fails to produce integrated pieces. Neither 10-minute plays nor one-acts, the results occupy an awkward space between forms, taking too long to establish their central concerns and too long to resolve them.
That I can say this truly of every play leads me to believe the fault lies less with the writers than with the process itself; the implication is that a play can be neatly divided into two relatively equal chunks—a beginning and an end—whereas in every successful play I can think of, the bulk of the action happens in the middle. And my sense from Mind the Gap is that the playwrights assigned the beginnings wrote with certain middles in mind, and the playwrights assigned the endings wrote with different middles in mind, and the result is slackness instead of tension. I don’t doubt that a single writer would have cut and pruned far more ruthlessly in service to a unifying vision.
These problems are most evident in (appropriately) the middle play, “The Place Where Dinosaurs Are Kept” (directed by Alexander Scally). Playwright Joe Dennison sets the scene in a wig shop, where a wife and her reluctant husband are seeking ways to dress up their love life. The banter is light and the shopkeeper amusingly eccentric, but about ten minutes into the piece the husband and wife exit forever, and playwright Susan M. McCarty introduces two more characters: the shopkeeper’s Bible-thumping mother and disabled brother. Darker tones muddy the lightness, as McCarty essentially begins a new play about intolerance and the limits of faith. One could cut “Dinosaurs” in half and give each piece a different title, and I suspect no one would realize they once were conjoined.
The two plays before “Dinosaurs” are tighter, particularly “Last Stop: F-Town,” in which director Rachael Lee Rash finds ways to incorporate elements of Rich Espey’s fanciful ending—a magic carpet ride to Funkytown—into Julie Lewis’s more realistic beginning, during which a wife and her reluctant husband bicker in a Moroccan rug shop. “Logan’s Ghosts” (directed by Bob Harris), which opens the show, features a similar transformation of the ordinary into the fantastical. (It might have been a good idea to space “Ghosts,” “F-Town,” and “Dinosaurs” further apart in the program—the parallels would have seemed less redundant.) In Peter Blaine’s beginning, three friends reminisce after the funeral of a fourth friend, Logan, who haunts the stage as a ghost; Sarah Weissman then pulls all four characters into a kind of dream state, where the still-living must decide whether to remain with Logan in their memories or return to the real world, with all its disappointments.
I could make very little sense of the two plays in the second act: “Panacea,” by Shaun Vain and Siarra T. Mong (directed by Andrew Peters); and “One End of the Earth,” by Ben Hoover and Joshua Conkel (directed by Jay Gilman). According to Glass Mind’s website, the former is about a woman, who may or may not be asleep, “[floating] through a peculiar set of memories”; the latter is an “absurdist tale [that] reconstructs the symbols of classic Americana and fairy-tales,” specifically the Statue of Liberty and Hansel and Gretel, whom I didn’t realize were broken. (I suppose, in these xenophobic days, that Lady Liberty could use some varnish, though in this particular incarnation she seems more interested in running Earth through a paper shredder and shining her flashlight in the eyes of audience members, so I’m inclined to let her rust.)
To be fair, both Peters and Gilman find some interesting ways to stage their respective plays—the silent, faceless being that stalks through “Panacea” is wonderfully creepy (costumer Caitlin Bouxsein deserves a mention here), and in “One End of the Earth,” a horny quarterback discovers a memorable new way to hike the ball. But both plays lose their momentum and finally peter out—I didn’t realize either had ended until the lights rose on the next piece.
Though the cast performs gamely, an additional member or two would have benefitted everyone—with one exception, each actor plays at least three substantial roles, resulting in much scuttling between corners of the theatre to grab a prop or change a costume. Asking each actor to focus on fewer roles would likely have produced more sharply defined characters. To name a few highlights: Sarah Eberhardt, J Hargrove, Rachel Holmes, and Mike Smith are convincing as grieving friends in “Logan’s Ghost,” though I sometimes had trouble hearing them over the theatre’s air conditioning, and Jasmine Andersen provides a strong center as the unfulfilled wife in “Last Stop: F-Town.” In “The Place Where Dinosaurs Are Kept,” Smith and Brian Horshaw transform characters who might easily have been caricatures into three-dimensional people; Michelle Bland has less success as the Bible-thumping mother, but I think this is more the fault of the script.
The night I saw the show, the musical guest was Never Bird, which I assume is a branch of Never Bird Theatre, “a group of artists, musicians, performers and aerialists who work with the ideas of improvisation in many different disciplines,” according to the website of the 2012 Transmodern Festival. Glass Mind Theatre similarly markets itself as “Baltimore-rooted artists exploring the boundaries of the theatrical experience through interactive concepts,” among them “the infusion of multidisciplinary production elements and an open line of communication between artists and audience members.”
These are lofty goals, yet I wonder whether such a mission leads Glass Mind to overextend itself. I do not think it a coincidence that the two best shows I have seen from the company—Antarctica (2010) and Den of Thieves (2011)—began with completed scripts. Unencumbered by the need to develop the texts as they staged them, the artists were free to devote all their energies to the nuances of production, with stellar results. In contrast, Mind the Gap is rarely more than a collection of interesting ideas.
Brainstorm 3: Mind the Gap is playing at the Load of Fun Theatre, located at 120 W. North Avenue in Baltimore. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 P.M. and Sundays at 7 P.M., through June 17th. Tickets are $12 for general admission and $8 for students and seniors. To see a lineup of musicians and to purchase tickets, visit http://www.glassmindtheatre.com/season-2/brainstorm3/.
Photos by Britt Olsen-Ecker
From This Author Brent Englar