BWW Review: Single Carrot's Magical Mystery Tour: A SHORT REUNION
Bundles of really short plays often make for decent evenings of theater, but they throw so much at you that, cumulatively speaking, they may not be very memorable. (Try to call to mind the last time you saw a package of playlets presented for over two hours - say, the very enjoyable 10X10X10 series at Fells Point Corner Theatre: anything in particular stick in your mind?) I would not expect a similar oblivion to await A Short Reunion, Single Carrot Theatre's nine-performance anthology, not so much because of any individual stick in the bundle, but because of the uniqueness of the whole conception.
The collective title reflected some of the distinctiveness of the evening: it was a series of "shorts" that also constituted a "reunion" of two types. This is Single Carrot's tenth season, at a point where the group has established a firm if slightly paradoxical claim to be the leading fringe theater in our region; and as happens when time passes, by now only one of its founding members still belongs to the resident company. The entire founding ensemble was back for this series of performances, however. In addition, the playlets were by playwrights whose work has been featured in former seasons.
And, apart from the reunion aspect of things, there was the peripatetic nature of the experience to make the evening unique and memorable. Audiences were warned that they should wear comfortable walking shoes, and that they would cover most of a mile crisscrossing the Remington neighborhood to witness the various pieces on offer.
Moreover, the interactions with the "tour guides," members of the company wearing (natch) carrot-orange shirts who led platoons of the audience members around the neighborhood so they kept bumping up against each other like ghost tours in the French Quarter, were effectively a separate part of the experience. We were told that the tour guide was working from a script, but that there would be spontaneous departures from it. Or were the departures scripted? Some seemed to be, but that might just have been a double fake-out. My group lost its tour guide, gained another, got merged with one other group, and then with all of the groups at the end, and it wasn't possible to determine what was "real." That manipulation of the framing experience was part of the fun.
The subversion of the frame started at the outset and never let up: the groups congregated outside the 26th Street theater entrance, a scene where on a mild spring night, there are crowds eating outside at Parts & Labor next door and crowds congregating in the small park space. We were encouraged to congregate in one spot in the park and suddenly realized that a couple sitting there were the performers in our first event, Adam Szymkowicz's 36 Questions or Emily & Sanders, a sometimes-cute riff on modern dating mores. The two of them seemed to be deciding, with the help of a questionnaire (being read off a cellphone) that helped them know each other better, whether to become an item or not. Emily (Genevieve de Mahy at the performance we saw, but three others are also listed on the program for that part, so no guarantees) has to run off for a bathroom break, and when she must leave, so must we - although we were reunited with them at a later juncture, to learn more of their ultimate fate.
Off we went to a nearby church where Grand Mal by Shawn Reddy awaited. There a Man (Paul Diem) seemed to be consoling a Kid (Ben Kleymeyer) who was sitting by his father's coffin. But was it consolation or what? And what was all that talk about time travel? No matter: before any of it could gel in our heads, it was time to be whisked to a stoop at a corner, where a Teacher (Alex Fenhagen) was trying to talk sense into a rebellious 15-year-old (Jesssica Moose Garrett) in Olivia Dufault's The Ninth Planet. The teacher gave up when the child, Casey, insisted her father was an astronaut. Then we followed Casey into the house for her confrontation with her no-account father (Elliott Rauh), who may yet have been an astronaut after all, and for her escape from that confrontation ... into outer space?
Relentlessly onward to the offices of Young Audiences, next-door to Single Carrot, for Tense White People Have Dinner by Jen Silverman, whose The Roommate recently entertained audiences at Everyman. If tension means losing your eyeballs before the first course, then this play lived up to its title even if not all the people in evidence were white - or was that merely non-traditional casting? And what was the confrontation with an owl at the end all about?
But wait! Or rather, don't wait! There's lots more! Back on the street, three performers atop, within, and beside an automobile revisited one of the most controversial and tragic psychological experiments associated with Johns Hopkins, the gender reassignment experiment conducted by Dr. John Money that ended in the subject's suicide. The shift from the magical realism of the previous two experiences to the somber documentary style of this piece, Bruce/Brenda/David, by J. Buck Jabaily and Nathan Fulton (with Aldo Pantoja and Meg Jabaily also credited) was both disconcerting and refreshing.
It was at about this point that we lost our guide after and as an apparent consequence of what appeared to be an extended off-script chat about his personal life, and with that loss, we found ourselves plunged into an even more disorienting part of the evening. We were led back then to the church, in another hall, where what we encountered could barely be called a theater piece, and more properly should have been called an installation, Live Through This, credited to Caridad Svich, a sort of stroll through life notable for a recreation of Jessica Lewinsky's blue dress (don't ask me why). The only thing that it had in common with theater was a strange monologue playing through a speaker with dreamy background music.
Time for comedy: we were led across Howard Street to Itch So Bad by Joshua Conkel, a scabrous (and I mean that literally) exploration of communicable disease in an era of prolific gay sex. It followed the liaisons of Josh A (Elliott Rauh) and Josh B (Dustin C.T. Morris) that were continually interrupted and/or punished by eruptions of scabies. The int-eruptions were embodied in a Scabies marching band led by Britt Olsen-Ecker performing George Michael's Faith, whose syncopated percussion soon had the house rocking. It is doubtful any of us in the audience had ever witnessed such a peppy presentation of a parasitic contagion.
But no rest for the weary. Down the street we went, to a former VW dealership where in a large space formerly devoted to automotive activities, we were shown a somber and perhaps agonized pas-de-deux of two women, portrayed by de Mahy and Fenhagen, apparently saying goodbye after - what? A love affair? A shared bereavement? Not stated - in fact there was almost no dialogue with which to state anything, in One More Time by Eric Coble (whose show Natural Selection was part of the 2010 Carrot season and my introduction to the troupe).
Left momentarily in the metaphorical and literal dark by the departure of the second performer in One More Time, we were surprised by the rolling up of garage door to admit the entire company, particularly the Scabies Band, but also all the other tour guides and performers, to provide what was called "group therapy" in a monologue called The Therapist by Charles Mee. The title character, embodied by Paul Diem, launched into a spirited evocation of the art of theater, which morphed into a vision of all life as a work of art. In that spirit, flags and funny hats were passed out to the congregation, as the Therapist stripped down to Superman skivvies (he is pictured above) and led the whole assemblage out onto Howard Street in a bacchanal, with a motorist honking in rhythm with the syncopation of Faith, and thence back to the theater.
The reader will note that I have been more descriptive than critical, and for good reason: most of these pieces were designed to resist analysis. Trying to understand such mini-enigmas is almost an insult to them. The question was whether you enjoyed the experience of being teased by them. I did, and I think most viewers would. And the experience, unreliable narrators, installation, marching mites and bacchanal and all, was surely more than the sum of its analyzable parts in any case.
These shows are running through the coming weekend only; that's one more way in which the "short" part of the title is meant, I'm sure. So strike while the iron is hot.
A Short Reunion (nine pieces by various playwrights, directed by various directors), presented by Single Carrot Theatre, 2600 N. Howard Street, Baltimore, MD 21218, through April 30. Tickets $22-$29, https://singlecarrot.secure.force.com/ticket. Protracted walking by audience members; adult language and topics, simulated sexual activity; not suitable for preadolescents.