Thursday, August 16, 2012

Thinking Man's Passport

Summer theater is rarely the moment for thoughtful reflection.  But Kevin Kostic's new play Passport is a thoughtful meditation on cultural conflict and the vagaries of mid-life crisis.  Produced by the Theatrical Mining company at Load of Fun Theater on North Avenue, the play is a new entry in this year's Baltimore Playwrights Festival.

The play pivots around the mid-life crisis of Jeff, a humanitarian worker who finds himself in personal crisis on two different continents.  In Kenya, he must confront rioting mobs contesting a recent presidential election and driving the country back to its ancient tribal conflicts.  Two Kenyan sisters, Kioni and Louisa, occupying his Kenya apartment under siege force Jeff to face the limits of his humanitarian interventions and confront a political violence he cannot fathom.  Back in his Washington, DC apartment, Jeff must face his deteriorating marriage to Nancy, an ambitious teacher who is on the verge of deserting her increasingly distant spouse.

Ably directed by Barry Feinstein, the cast successfully realizes the potential of the conflict-ridden characters.  Mike Ware delivers an utterly convicing peformance as Jeff.  Even his gestures and facial expressions exude the anguish of a middle-aged relief worker who can no longer fathom the politics of the world in which he lives and the emotional enigma of his failing marriage.  Ama Brown (Kioni) and Mahogany Ayot Eerised (Louisa) bring out the sharp rivalry between the dueling sisters and the bitter conflict in the sisters' philosophies.  The pragmatic Louisa insists that compromise is good and necessary in one's professional and political choices; the fiery Louisa insists on a purer but more violent and nihilist creed rooted in tribal loyalty.  Enhancing their conflict is the mural painted by David Cunningham; it vividly represents the angry mob outside ready to devour the characters at any moment.  Claire Bowman empathetically portrays Nancy, the confused wife who can no longer tolerate the growing silence and distraction of her husband.

The script could still use further work.  At moments the dialogue becomes preachy, as when the sparring sisters deliver a predictable tirade against the failures of humanitarian projects in their home vilage and when Nancy tries to help her husband "become yourself" as their conflict comes to a climax.  The soapbox doesn't seem far from the efficient set in such passages.  But these are minor flaws in a play which intelligently probes a man in simultaneous political and romantic mid-life meltdown and which sets the conflict in the unusual world of international relief organizations.    

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Inch of Water

Single Carrot's production of Foot of Water bursts with intensity but at the end of the performance of this original production, little more than energy remains.

Directed by Ben Hoover, this year-long work-in-progress explores human eroticism at its most primal.  Inspired by the ritualistic techniques of Polish director Grotowski, the actors exhaust themselves in forcefully representing the most basic gestures of human sexuality.  Curiosity, foreplay, and embraces pass in review as they lead up to a violent orgasm and brutal death of the lover.  Centered on an earth-motherish Jessica Garrett, the energetic cast (Nathan Cooper, Alix Fenhagen, Nathan Fulton, Aldo Pantoja, Elliott Rauh) depicts a bolero of sexuality as it moves from sexuality as an innocent romp to the violence, nudity, and death of the conclusion.  The mosaic of music and sounds chosen by sound designer Steven Krigel enhances this determined climb from the wistful to the murderous.  This visceral presentation of sexual desire is not for the squeamish (or for the non-adult), but the power and conviction of the ensemble lends this creation its cascading energy.

And yet.  For all its vitality and determination, Foot of Water doesn't quite manage to bring off its exploration of "the sociology of sex."  The tale of a fertility-raining fountain in a village becomes tired in the telling.  Much of the spoken text bears a similar banality.  The physical gestures of carnal desire are forcefully portrayed, but where is the rest of human sexuality?  Commitment, friendship, sacrifice, marriage, family---even children?  For all of its visual brilliance, this is an oddly sterile take on sexuality.  This rite of sexual awakening is very far from "the rituals we have all gone through or eventually go through in our personal sex histories" (director's note).  The grunts remain; the romance and the promise have vanished.     

Friday, May 25, 2012

Autobio Maeshiba

Premiering this weekend at Theatre Project, Kawatokawa (river/skin) represents Naoka Maeshiba's most personal piece of peformance art yet.  The solo ballet, heavily using mime, explores the various roles and transitions the Japanese choreographer has undergone in her emotional and artistic pilgrimage.

Moving from one prop or boldly colored piece of clothing to another, Maeshiba skillfully expresses the passions proper to each stage of transition.  Using complementary recorded voices, her depiction of the transition to America is the most accessible part of the work.  Humor and pathos alternate as the life of the often-baffled protagonist unfolds.  The choreographer's two unobtrusive assistants (Eva Hiott and Zach Bobst) provide simple gestural support and keep the props (especially during a humorous storm scene) moving.

Especially striking is the emotive range of Maeshiba's choreography and peformance.  One moves effortlessly from the intimate self-enclosure of "Dark Room" to the bombastic yells and flapping arms of "We, the Japanese."  Maeshbia often reacts passively to the various events of her complex transition.  Through her contorted gestures and baffled grimaces, she is moved, pushed, and shoved from one developmental state to another.

As compared to her earlier, more abstract Paraffin (presented at Theatre Project two years ago), Kawatokawa is a more personalist work.  Even in the obscure earlier sections of the work, the basic emtoions of fear, curiosity, and rejection float off the stage with carefully calibrated movements.  The audience is clearly touched as the piece rises toward its final paroxysm, even if the precise caus of that chiseled touch remains veiled.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Dance Sampler

Baltimore offers endless selections of drama and music. But dance events are rare.

Currently playing at Theatre Project, Shorts offers sixteen brief dance numbers by various regional dance companies and dancers. This varied anthology does not disappoint. A comic delight, Triplets features Sara Few, Martha Johnston, and Jennifer Seye in a vignette of quarreling triplets choreographed by Jennifer Seye. Choreographed by Cait Moler and performed by Marilyn Mullen and Adriana Saldana, These Walls have Windows is the evening's most sophisticated piece. The dancers elegantly negotiate textile bonds through geometric turns until they become engulfed in them. Accompanied by an ear-piercing rock duet, Adrienne Latanishen delivers some of the evening's most athletic and accomplished dancing in eclat. Several pieces explore the border between dance and non-dance. Prepare ascend fly ties dance to repetitive body movements and insect-like hums; #boildedrabbits adds a dose of improv theater to the proceedings.

Not everything in the anthology succeeds. Some bodies are less than lythe; some dancers exhibit little technique or discipline. A few of the routines come perilously close to what one expects on Dance Moms. It is unclear why no male dancers were present in the performance. But the flaws detract little from an exuberant sampler of dance trends in Charm City.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Barnyards and Bullies

Joshua Conkel's Milk Milk Lemonade features an absurdist slice of America.

Energetically performed by Single Carrot Theatre, the black comedy features a perplexed middle-school student Emory (played by Aldo Pantoja), tormented by his Wagnerian grandmother Nanna (Elliott Rauh) and by the brutal kid-down-the-block Elliott (Giti Jabailly). To find solace on his lonely chicken farm, Emory befriends the uber-chicken Linda (Jessica Garrett), whom he attempts to save from the farm's lethal processing machine. A lyotard-clad narrator (Genevieve de Mahy) gaily directs the play's action, provides a voice for the clucking Linda, and wears the evening's best costume as a spider who attacks the hapless Linda under the porch.

The dreams of the play's characters are pop Americana. Emory would like to win stardom on a knockoff of American Idol with his disco ribbon dance; Elliott wants nothing more than the perfect prom date. Amid hilarious dance routines and eccentric jokes, the play deals with the serious issue of social roles and stereotypes. Nanna hectors the effeminate Emory and drags his doll aways from him; Elliott bullies Emory to the point of violence. In Nanna's world, everyone has a distinct role: men are brawny and aggressive, chickens are meant to end up fried on the plate. For the ever-sensitive Emory, even chickens (and moths) have souls and the equally sensitive Linda must be saved from the death machine's blades. Although the admonitions against bullying push the play beyond a pop cartoon, the audience may want to come up for air when the preaching becomes overheated.

At the center of the action is Aldo Pantoja's exuberant performance as Emory. His lythe dances and sentimental protests capture adolescent angst in a boy who is simply different from the others and who sympathizes with similarly misshapen others. The rest of the cast is similarly energetic; director Nathan Cooper continues Single Carrot's brand of athletic, mobile performance. But these performances have a one-note montony. Nanna is all bark with little humanity in her devotion to her farm and grandson; Linda is vaguely pleasant rather than endearing. One of the heroes of the evening is Melanie Lester and her team of designers from the Maryland Institute College of Art; their colorful and witty costumes light up Conkel's pop fantasy of fame and fulfillment.