BWW Review: Overstuffed and Disorganized SAFE SPACE at Single Carrot Theatre
On the evidence of his play Safe Space, R. Eric Thomas is a playwright of immense talent in clear need of an editor. In the world premiere production of Safe Space presented by Single Carrot Theatre, the audience is likely to feel itself overwhelmed by ideas that cancel each other out, elements that seem out of place together, and what might be called an excess of excess. I felt myself in the presence of a really good play that needed to lose half an hour, one character (at least), and perhaps one of the things it tries to be in order to live up to its potential.
It's important to back up such comments with specifics. Though it's difficult in a review where one eschews spoilers, let me try.
By way of backround, the central conceit of this play, set mostly in the basement of an antebellum mansion in a rural exurb of Baltimore, is that somewhere back in history it was the heart of a slavery-supported plantation, at which Charlotte (Tina Canady), a slave, was shot, and that today it has come down into the hands of non-profit executive Helen (Alix Fenhagen) and Ryan (Matthew Shea) her gun-loving brother who seems to be mixed up in some kind of right-wing militia - and that the new management, especially Ryan, is a spiritual continuation of the pre-Civil War management. Running alongside this plot is a large swatch of dysfunctional office politics in Helen's failing non-profit. The comically hateful office assistant Nadeen (Daniela Hernández-Fujigaki) deploys the language of corporate-speak, HR, and pop-psych to undermine everyone around her. Hazzie (also Tina Canady), nominally the HR manager, seems to be less-than-fully invested in whatever is happening at the water cooler, being focused instead on an upcoming return-to-her-roots pilgrimage to the notorious Ghanaian "Door of No Return," from whence slaves were transported to the New World. Dogsbody Bill (Aaron Hancock) is relegated to getting coffee for everyone else, despite a job title and qualifications that would seem to put this chore below him. Helen is not the only bridge between the office and the mansion basement; Bill's boyfriend, locksmith Courtney (Dominic Gladden), is called to the mansion basement to assist in the opening of a locked door. Except maybe the door isn't really locked, and Courtney is in reality being called for some other nefarious purpose. And Courtney seems to be uncannily haunted by the ghosts of the mansion.
Behind this locked door resides the ghost of Charlotte, who is effectively trying to exorcise herself in a way that seems to bear similarities to Hazzie's African rite of return, and she seems to know things Hazzie knows. So is she also Hazzie or is Hazzie also her? Or - well, never mind. Behind the door also resides a collection of rifles that may belong to the white supremacists Ryan perhaps pals around with - although if the door is persistently locked, how would Ryan stash the rifles behind it? Or were these actually rifles associated with John Brown's Harpers Ferry uprising? There's an ancient pistol behind the door as well, associated with Charlotte. So when the absurdity of gun fetishism becomes a theme, is it a white obsession or a black one? Also behind the door lies a safe. There are two or three possible explanations of its contents. If there was an authoritative explanation of the contents of the safe, I missed it.
The thematic relationship of the two stories, that of the mansion and that of the office, is also unclear. It can hardly be as simple as "what fools these white mortals be," since Helen is the only white-identified person in the office, and while she may be the figurehead of the company ship, she isn't driving the folly nearly as much as the other personnel. Indeed that theme doesn't fit the basement plot very well either, given how much silliness emanates from the non-white characters who turn up in the basement, even Charlotte, who, at least in Tina Canaday's powerful performance, seems the wisest of the fools. Tellingly, when Charlotte delivers the final speech, there is an air of exhausted indeterminacy about it, as if Thomas did not consider the audience entitled to having him summon for them either thematic clarity or dramatic resolution.
And then there are the interminable repetitions of one scene with only slight variations, and not one but two Mack Sennett-style free-for-all chases, the latter marred, at least in this staging, by lack of clarity, if not frank incoherence, in who was chasing whom.
There is no question that Thomas has serious things to say about the state of race in our country. In a Single Carrot press release, he is quoted, for instance, as saying that the play was written now to address "the scourge of white supremacy," and that the play is "about priorities for the future and a way out." He calls his thoughts "complicated." And complicated is fine, so long as the audience is given as concrete and coherent a map of the way through that complication as Thomas can fashion. But that work has not been done.
It's a shame, because there is so much good stuff in it. I loved the poisonous Nadeen's machinations. I loved Charlotte's ruminations about race. I loved much of the constant bickering among the characters. And yet eventually it was too much, as with each of these just-cited examples. The bickering especially turned excruciating close to the end, when there is a task that one of the characters must perform. Every time the character turns to the task at hand, a fight erupts and delays matters. Clearly, Thomas's object in this setup was to ratchet up tension surrounding the task, and what might follow its fulfillment. But characters in that situation in real life just wouldn't go on bickering, and Thomas kept making the joke again and again. At another point, the joke we've all seen in plays and movies about someone waving around a weapon for expressive, not combative, purposes, and frightening everyone it points at kept being repeated as if we had never seen it before and would therefore be speechless with mirth.
And then, on the other hand, my very favorite moment in the show had to do with weapons too - the aforementioned rifles. For some reason, there is a semi-orgiastic rifle dance in the middle of the play, with the entire cast's faces suffused with gun-induced nirvana. (It's pictured above, though the photograph doesn't do justice to the manic fun of it.) It has nothing obvious to do with most of the characters' personalities, nor with the plot. It's a beaut. But from the point of view of play construction, it's a waste, since its thematic impact is close to nil.
I hope Mr. Thomas can sit down with a trusted mentor and strip down and refashion the play. It's not that far from great, but for the moment a miss is as good as a mile.
Let me hasten to add that the cast, like that at most of Single Carrot's productions, is everything one could ask. Their excitement and enthusiasm and comic timing kept me laughing even when I was dealing with the frustrations of the script.
I also need to address the venue. This season, Single Carrot, cast loose from its previous theater, has embraced immersive performances, doing shows in found performance spaces. Immersive work had been part of Single Carrot's repertoire even when it had its old theater on Howard Street. Now it's the approach for a whole season. In this case, the site is the fascinating Clifton Mansion, former home of historical local grandee Johns Hopkins. (It bears mention that the slaves at the site, including those who built the house, were there before Johns Hopkins owned it, Hopkins having turned resolutely against slavery as early as 1807, long before he acquired the Mansion.) So there's a thematic tie, to be sure. But this show is staged in the basement, which is - kinda like a basement, to tell the truth: grubby, unfinished, furnished with tools and castoff objects. It's also tiny and unable to accommodate much of an audience, and, after a certain point, claustrophobia-inducing. It chimes well with at least the basement moments of the play, though when forced to do double-duty as an office, with a washing machine doubling as a desk, it doesn't do nearly as well. While it is unlikely that true believers in immersive settings will be dissuaded by anything I might say, this show reminded me of all the reasons that more conventional theater spaces evolved. Each of those (e.g. proscenium, thrust, or arena) makes certain kind of compromises that advantage both audiences and performers. Found spaces will not often have benefited from an intentional embrace of such compromises. It does happen sometimes; for instance last year in Russia I sat with an audience in a well-restored mansion ballroom where the historical sitters-by would have sat, watching re-enactors performing a czarist ballroom dancing scene. That worked perfectly, because the room was designed for spectators situated exactly where we were sitting to watch dancing executed exactly where the dancers were dancing. But in my admittedly limited experiences of the world of immersive entertainment, such felicities are rare.
I hope Single Carrot can resume residence in a fixed theatrical abode in the next season. And given the audience interest, as demonstrated by the fact that this show is reportedly selling out fast, but given that the limits on seating put strict limits on audience size, I'll bet Single Carrot may also be yearning for a larger and more regular home again. I hope that if they have concluded they want it, they can get it.
In the meantime, though Single Carrot remains a gem of the local theater scene, this show is not its finest moment.
Safe Space, by R. Eric Thomas, directed by Ben Kleymeyer, presented through February 23 by Single Carrot Theatre at the Clifton Mansion, 2701 St. Lo Drive, Baltimore, MD 21213. Tickets $10-$55 at https://singlecarrot.com/safespace. Gunplay, simulated gunshots, adult language.
Photo credit: Glenn Ricci.