BWW Reviews: Ink on the Canvas

Shambling up Martin Luther King Jr Avenue in Baltimore on my way to see Iron Crow Theatre Company's Bareback Ink, "on the wrong side of the bridge" as Johns Hopkins students say, the sights in this gritty but artsy neighborhood were a theater of their own. I was particularly charmed by the people, including one man, who could have been anywhere between 17 and 30, whose face was entirely tattooed.

It's a world vastly different from the Hopkins campus, with its wealth and privilege, but a world director Ryan Clark has masterfully brought to life on the Iron Crow's Swirnow Theater stage.

The Swirnow is a surprisingly spacious black box theater, but the brilliant design has a unified vision to tighten focus on the bare basement where Bareback Ink is set, giving the impression of a cramped space while leaving the seating comfortable. Muted techno-oriented house music continues this theme, giving the audience the impression that there is a crazy party happening very close by.

There is quite a bit of partying in this play, but it is always happening offstage. The play is set in a club basement cum spartan apartment where one of the three characters (The Artist, played by Steve Satta) lives with only a cot, his drawings, his tattooing implements and his door that locks from the outside. This room shows off a bit of cleverness by set designer Heather Mork and costume designer Nick Horan. The Artist's quarters and clothing is almost entirely gray or black; the only splashes of color come from a fragmented painting on his walls and the entrance of the Canvas, played by Tanner Medding. Where the Artist is locked away from the constant party above, the Canvas is the life of the party, but that is not necessarily an enviable position. Medding is gorgeous, the "before" picture of the Man With the Tattooed Face and the "after" picture of an exercise machine sold on late night TV. Unfortunately, this body is what attracts the third character in the play to him, forcing the Canvas to entertain the club in a cage and be in a state of perpetual sexual servitude. The third character is the boss of the club, unnamed and not appearing in the play, only speaking through thunderclaps, which are nicely modulated by sound designer Jessye Black to convey different emotions and reactions.

If you think it is weird for a character to not appear in a play and only speak in thunder, you'd be right. But Bob Bartlett builds a weird and wonderful world that makes it fit. The play's premise is simple enough: the mysterious club owner has ordered the Canvas to the Artist's basement to get a full back tattoo before the Canvas turns 18. But the the simplicity of that summary belies the complex implications of it. Bartlett folds Greek mythology in with city grime, so we are never quite sure of the rules of the game. The club owner is tied up with Zeus, just as the Canvas is tied up with Ganymede (one of Zeus' many rape victims), but it is hard to tell whether the owner is actually Zeus or if he has manipulated and abused the Artist and the Canvas so deeply that they are convinced he is a god. I wonder if the Man with the Tattooed Face was manipulated into scarring his face by someone he thought was a god. In a nod to Bartlett's craft as a playwright, the club owner is very much like a god in that his presence is felt without physically being there, like a pimp manipulating a prostitute or a parent guilting a child from a distance.

The secretive and dark relationships between the invisible Zeus character and the characters on stage sparks a vivacious and dynamic relationship between the Canvas and the Artist. Steve Satta's Artist has a long gaze, and he has found an acting sweet spot contained in the distant gruffness of a desperately lonely prisoner who simultaneously needs and hates company. Satta is artfully restrained, but his occasional explosions create spikes of emotional glory for his character. Tanner Medding's Canvas takes the opposite tack, but no less sweet, when he finds the balancing point of an adolescent, valued only for his body, who needs and hates attention. Medding effervesces with youthful spirit, and finds a way to be petulant and boyish without being grating. They are drawn together with ease which covers over occasional moments when I wonder why the Canvas is staying in the room, despite his frustration with the Artist. Their connection deepens over the play, pushing both of them to the extremes of their characters and inspiring conflict between them, resolving in a strange and symbol-ridden final scene.

The toughest call for this play is placing it in a genre. As the plot unfurls, the play begins as a mystery, then becomes a romance, and finishes as a coming-of-age story, but none of those three types contains the whole. I see Bareback Ink as a psychological horror play. With the Josef Fritzls and Ariel Castros of the world pervading our media with their kidnapping, imprisonment, and sexual torture, the world of entrapped people horribly used for their bodies and talents is more reality than myth. Alex Lawson's lighting design clues us in on the horror of the play, alternating the palette of this world from stark neutrals to shadowy purple and finishing with a blaring white light to illuminate the play's climax. Bartlett's poetry exacerbates the horror by giving the Canvas elegant and brutal descriptions of his own violation. This play seems to draw its horror from the world of the Man with the Tattooed Face, with a life so wild and pain so deep that living requires a permanent mask.

When the play was over I still had questions, but different ones than I came in with. Whose fault is the horror of the play? What is it exactly that is outside of that basement prison? Will the Canvas walk the streets of Baltimore with a sign that reads, "Please Help?" Maybe the Man with the Tattooed Face was once a canvas for a different Artist. Maybe he was once the servant of a cruel master. Maybe he was his own Artist. He was very much like this play, full of mystery, broken energy, and a unique kind of power that only lives in powerlessness. Maybe I will take the Man with the Tattooed Face to see this play, and see what he thinks. It wouldn't be hard, since Bareback Ink is a play that I would see again and again.

The Swirnow Theatre is located in the Mattin Center for the Arts, Johns Hopkins University, Charles Street and 33rd Street in Baltimore. The play runs through June 14th, Wed-Sat., June 11-14, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 general admission, $15 for students/seniors/artists/military. For more information and ticket reservations visit or call the Iron Crow box office at 443-637-CROW (2769).

PHOTO BY: Daniel Ettinger


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