Review: Brava, Bravo! Fall In Love With HUBBA HUBBA at Theatre Project

Alex & Olmsted Debut New Piece About Romantic Love In Downtown Baltimore Through April 2, 2023

VIDEO: Nova Y. Payton, Natascia Diaz & Karen Vincent in THE WORLD GOES 'ROUND at Olney Theatre Center
VIDEO: Nova Y. Payton, Natascia Diaz & Karen Vincent in THE WORLD GOES 'ROUND at Olney Theatre Center

Don't miss the World Premiere! This is a brand new show from Alex Vernon and Sarah Olmsted Thomas, the two artists of Alex and Olmsted (Olmsted: spelled like Fred, not Head). Alex and Olmsted present HUBBA HUBBA, a collection of vignettes about romantic love at Theatre Project in the Mount Royal area of Baltimore through April 2. It's not merely a series of sketches- there's also an overarching storyline, which, while simple, is compelling and relatable.

I've been married to the same person for approximately nine hundred years, so romantic love isn't something I think about necessarily every day. My non-spouse companion attending this performance, while mildly interested in romantic love, is personally very firmly anti-relationship.

We both adore this show.

You might expect sappy. It's not sappy. You might expect sentimental. It's not sentimental. You might expect predictable. It's not predictable.

HUBBA HUBBA is, from its very outset, extraordinarily confident in presenting itself as tentative and unsure. Every oops, every bump, every um, every fumble is exquisitely composed to touch everyone who has ever felt romantic stirrings, felt heartbreak, been in love, been on a first date or been in eighth grade. This team has an amazing mastery of their craft, which, make no mistake, isn't the common cultural perception of puppetry, but a brilliant multi-media spectacle that happens to integrate puppets as additional characters.

Theatre Project- which still has a wear-your-mask policy in place- requires some stair climbing. Although there's a wheelchair lift for those with impaired movement, letting the box office know in advance- by more than a few hours- about needing it is prudent, as staffing is minimal, with multiple hat-wearing. As a post-ascent reward, you might enjoy beer, wine or soft drinks in the lobby, replacing your mask between sips.

Theatre Project's cavernous performance space is a moody environment. The curved back wall suggests we're inside a gigantic greco-roman column. Shadows fall gently and symmetrically. A covered table with a curtained frame sits front and center on the stage. At both sides are suspended a number of red cords, each with what appears to be postcards attached intermittently. They visually fill what otherwise would be dead space, emphasizing the sweeping verticality of the arena while reflecting the rectangular geometry of the other set pieces.

The show begins long ago, in primordial ooze, or very nearly, with a couple of excellently conceived, emotive translucent beings. ("They look like amoebae but that's not how they reproduce," my companion, a microbiologist, tells me later. "I really, really wanted them to be amoebae- and they were, mostly.") We then are treated to an assortment of 'love bites,' a handful of candy hearts, each with its own brief and urgent message.

You may have heard Love Stinks, Love Is A Battlefield, Love On The Rocks ain't no surprise- what you might not have heard is that love is funny. In fact, love is sometimes hilarious. Even when love is not hilarious, Alex & Olmsted are, as they take suggestions from the audience and transform them into exchanges that are equal parts awkwardness and side-splitting laughter. Be forewarned: choosing a well-fitting mask is important; my theater companion managed to dislodge their mask several times while convulsed with chortling.

Alex Vernon and Sarah Olmsted play musical instruments and sing during the performance, but HUBBA HUBBA also has a solid soundtrack with melodic backup to augment the performance. The audio cues are sometimes abrupt, but since the performers are rendering sound cues from backstage while they're doing everything... truly, EVERYTHING else, that's impressive, chunky transitions and all. And it is the show's premier, on Opening Night. It honestly feels nitpicky to even mention.

Lighting for HUBBA HUBBA, designed by Tori Muñoz, is executed perfectly in the booth of Theatre Project by Eli Bendel-Simso. Seamless lighting transitions enhance each sequence, without being repetitive or resorting to general wash. Shadows across the curved back wall are mesmerizing even though not fully plot-relevant. More calculated (though also not plot-relevant) is a comic shadow puppet segment that's packed with groan-worthy puns. While there's contextually appropriate dancing, each movement of each performer is so precisely choreographed that it resembles dance even when it isn't.

Set design, also devised by Alex and Olmsted, is simple and functional- center, a covered table topped with a curtained theatrical frame. The pair does all the set arrangement and rearrangement themselves, and engages in deliberately audible conversation behind the large set piece. Costuming, again by Alex & Olmsted, is red, red, and so much more red. And the set is red. And the set dressings are red. And a cleverly designed interactive prop is also- you guessed it- red.

A few notes: If you've forgotten your mask, Theatre Project provides disposable ones; naturally, it's more considerate to bring your own. Beverages are available for purchase in the lobby before the show, (and possibly afterwards); there is no intermission. No food or liquids are permitted inside the theater. Programs are accessed by scanning a QR code posted in the lobby. If you'd like a paper version, you can print one at your convenience.

The artists suggest this show's suitable for "all ages," and it technically is. Those younger than tweens, however, might not appreciate or enjoy sophisticated subtleties of romantic love.

Ticket prices are $20 for General Admission, $15 for Senior/Student/Artist/Military. Evening showtimes on Fridays and Saturdays are 8 PM; Matinee showtimes on Saturdays and Sundays are 3:00 PM. The show on March 26th will be ASL interpreted.

Whether you're crying in your pillow from heartbreak, dreaming of true love, or just want cuddles and a nap, Baltimore, don't sleep on this show. If you're prepared to release snarky preconceptions about puppets, if you're willing to root for the success of a fruit fly, eager to be entranced by an expressive daisy, or able be moved to actual tears by a couple of pieces of string, you're ready for Alex & Olmsted's HUBBA HUBBA.

HUBBA HUBBA, presented by Alex & Olmsted, plays through April 2, 2023 at Theatre Project, 45 West Preston Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21201

Run Time: approximately 80 minutes, no intermission.

To see HUBBA HUBBA, Click Here or through Theatre Project's Box Office: 410-752-8558

Street parking is available, though what, or if, it costs is unclear, as we parked beside a meter that took credit cards as well as quarters, but then told us parking was free. Previously, I've parked inside a paid structure across from Theatre Project, and in an unenclosed paid lot a block or so away on Maryland Avenue.

Poster Art by David Plunkert

Photo Credit: Ryan Maxwell Photography

Final Factoid: Alex & Olmsted are core members of Happenstance Theater, a larger group of multi-talented creatives who present shows at Theatre Project and elsewhere in the region.


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