Single Carrot's "Red Light Winter" is Summer Hot
◊◊◊◊◊ out of five.
(NOTE: This review discusses sexual content and adult language.)
With the opening of Adam Rapp's Red Light Winter, Single Carrot Theatre has single handedly brought Baltimore theatre into the 21st century, while setting a new standard for excellence. This stunning production should be a wake up call for all local theatres (and patrons) who think you can't put on a New York quality show on a small budget. The newest company in Charm City, Single Carrot quietly announced its presence earlier this season with a short play festival, and they did so with class and professionalism. But nothing prepared this critic for the explosion of talent and sheer bravery that this production brings to the stage at the Theatre Project on Preston Street.
Rapp's play, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is an update of the struggling-to-find-its-place in-society generational play. That struggle to reach maturity is a common theme throughout American drama particularly. In his thoughtful director's notes, J. Buck Jabaily reminds us of plays past that have covered similar ground - Death of a Salesman, The Glass Menagerie to name but two. As he says, "Rapp gives us an unflinching look at how young adults today are facing the struggles before them." He is absolutely correct; it is unflinching. It is also provocative, boldly sexual and deeply moving. The play manages to be both of its time and timeless. You needn't be a late 20-something to understand or relate to this work.
Red Light Winter tells of two college buddies, post graduation and at the ground floor of their future careers. Matt (Brendan Ragan), is a profoundly depressed young man struggling to make it as a playwright. A self-described uber-nerd, Matt is the kind of guy you respect, love and want to help. The other, Davis (Aldo Pantoja) is a hyper-charismatic egotistical maniac. He is the kind of self-absorbed guy who has made a living out of a nice smile, a sharp wit and the kind of luck such prickish men always seem to have. He is a people magnet, and it is immediately clear why people, even against their better judgment, are drawn to him like rats to the Pied Piper of Hamlin. The two guys are on vacation in Amsterdam, with Matt hiding out in his hotel room, trying to write, but mostly contemplating suicide, and Davis out drugging and whoring. Davis, determined to give Matt something to get rid of his depression, brings back a joint and a prostitute named Christina (Giti Lynn). Act one follows this initial meeting of the three, while act two takes place the following winter in New York City where all three lives unexpectedly and tragically re-converge. It is interesting to contemplate the fact that this generation, more so than any other, has the easiest access to information than any other, and yet, like all generations, is brought down by things that they feel will "never happen to them."(To tell any more of the story would be to destroy the joy of experiencing all this work has to offer its audience.)
Rapp's use of language is so "now", it is disturbing and funny and exasperating all at once. The characters talk at Internet speed, an odd, but spot on conglomeration of college/Surfer Guy-speak ("Dude, that's like totally how it is, bro."), a seemingly endless stream of cultural/educational touchstones and pop cultural references ("Like, Henry Miller is a God, and [insert pseudo-intellectual author name from this week's NYT Best Seller list] here"), and a healthy dose of vulgar language that (for this generation) is devoid of any profane value, but is rather just the next step in level of extremes ("Good, better, best, "f*king awesome, buttf*ker!"). Rapp also infuses very graphic sexual sequences - masturbation, various permutations of oral sex and genital hygiene are discussed matter of factly - while sexual intercourse, both traditional and more violent, is depicted right before us. What is amazing, and what really brings this play to the next level, is that none of the language, drug abuse or sexual content in the play is done for any gratuitous shock value. It is, without exception, there to illuminate characters, and to literally and figuratively strip them (and us by proxy) of any inhibitions. One can't help but be anything but honest when standing naked on the verge of a sex act.
Mr. Jabaily has directed this already fine piece with a sharp focus, and absolutely no extraneous filler. Every move, every Pinteresque pause, is carefully constructed to bring out the full meaning (meanings) of the piece. It is both uniquely theatrical and in-your-face real, and 100% of the time genuine. This director uses an empty stage with as much effect as the times when all three characters are engaged in tense dialogue. What is interesting is the incredible specificity of the direction that allows times when no one is on stage, when one actor is alone on stage, when two are engaged, or when all three are. Each permutation offers its own meaning and tension. And there is tension. This play is not for the squeamish, to be sure - one must be willing to sit and contemplate personal thoughts and thoughts about the play. One can not be passive at this presentation. It also pulsates with a vitality that I think only someone of this age can bring to the work (Jabaily and his cast are the ages of the playwright and characters.) And by sharing this generation's unique energy on such common themes as love, sexuality, betrayal and trust, all of us can learn so much. The generations are different, yes, but they are also the same. Mr. Jabaily is a young director to keep an eye on, for sure.
The technical staff has also done superlative work. Joey Bromfield, set lighting and sound designer (you have to love a new small theatre company - he must be exhausted) has done much to create a world where we are allowed to see stark reality (the props are so specific, for example), and yet can fill in the gaps with our own take on the situation (the walls are strips of painted cloth; a closet is suggested by a door frame and curtain). His lighting design is also both real and theatrical - general room lighting is alternately bright and dim with shadows between, while other scenes are illuminated with a small desk lamp. When Matt is kissed deeply by Christina, it is a moment that is a life-changing epiphany for him. Bromfield bumps up the stage lighting AND the house lights as that "flash" hits Matt. Absolutely brilliant. The final image of two people stripping, going to bed and having sex is symbolically lit by a carefully aimed red light that throws its beam across the room, and is ever so slowly dimmed. Emily Kallay's costumes are the perfect blend of grunge and fashionista styling. Genevieve de Mahy's dialect coaching gives Ms. Lynn's character an amazing level of reality, and in a credit I've never seen before, Jessica Garret provided "smoking coaching"! Indeed, the smoking does look very much like a habit for those characters that do.
Aldo Pantoja's Davis is infuriating and cunningly ingratiating all at once. He is, well, an asshole. But his toothsome smile combined with an overbearing physicality and the ability to cut someone else to the quick while they think they are being complimented draws women and men to him like a spider draws flies to its web. That Mr. Pantoja can wring all of this character from the script is miraculous. And he is so natural - I hope he isn't too much like Davis in real life. He plays two key moments with stunning clarity and economy. One such moment, in which Davis holds a desperately distraught Matt in his arms, has Pantoja, with the slightest adjustment to his facial expression, finding and revealing a glimmer of Davis' usually hidden compassion. Just as quickly, the veneer goes up - but not before we get the idea that Davis is a man with the same needs as everyone else, in spite of how "cool" he is. The other moment is just the opposite. It comes in act two, where he selfishly takes what he wants - this time a final, cruel sexual assault on Christina. Pantoja's face illuminates a man consumed with greed and carefree lust. The violence of his actions, culminating in the smug grunt of orgasm achieved makes us despise him, and for reasons not to be revealed here, a mixture of pity and vengeance. Davis will get his in the end.
Giti Lynn, offers a deeply moving portrayal of a prostitute resigned to her place in life, and determined to make the most of the life she is given. Well, at least on the outside. Ms. Lynn's large soulful eyes speak volumes about the heartache of life as a hired lover. Every glance is calculated to give her john whatever he wants, but always with a slight twinge of pain. As she struggles to understand the Americans she is "working" for, Lynn looks clearly oblivious when she does not understand, and works hard to show she is trying to understand. She is charming, sexy and beguiling all at once. One must resist the urge to take her in your arms and protect her. Lynn also has the difficult task of stripping naked more than once, completely undress a young man, and realistically engage in two graphic sex acts. This fine actress is so in the moment that for all of us it is breathtakingly real. Toward the end of the play, her character reveals a tragic fact, and Ms. Lynn handles it with the perfect balance of underplaying and intensity. No melodrama here and kudos to her for finding a masterful way to portray this.
Finally, Brendan Ragan's performance as Matt is spellbinding and no less than brilliant. It is equal parts physicality and emotionality. One imagines this young man is exhausted following the show. It is rare to find such a detailed and never off performance, and he handles every quirk of his role with amazing clarity and specificity. The smallest gesture or quick glance reveal as much about his character as a couple of expertly delivered monologues. Mr. Ragan makes us care for Matt to the point where it might be difficult to let it go emotionally on the way home. At the very least, his performance is one you will think about and remember for sometime. His sad eyes, his weary smile, his touching empathy for others brings a humanity (and glorious counterpoint to Davis) to the play. He, like Ms. Lynn also brings a brave dignity to some very very honest dialogue and in the scene that requires him to give himself completely to Christina physically. How brave these actors are. Ragan's performance is at a completely professional level.
The entire production is at that professional level, which is ironic considering the current local debate as to the relevance of community level theatre to its audience and the media. Single Carrot Theatre literally chose Baltimore to be its new home, and what an addition to the family! Welcome to Baltimore, Single Carrot Theatre! We've been waiting for someone just like you. Please stay awhile.
PHOTOS: Courtesy of Single Carrot Theatre. TOP to BOTTOM: (LtoR) Aldo Pantoja, Giti Lynn and Brendan Ragan; Matt and Christina (Brendan Ragan and Giti Lunn); Davis "charms" Christina (Aldo Pantoja and Giti Lynn); Giti Lynn and Brendan Ragan.