Friday, September 11, 2015

Families Sweet And Sour

The Variations project has become one of Baltimore's most creative theatrical traditions.  Now in its eleventh season, the project is a year-round collaborative event.  The audience from one year's production votes on the theme for the next year's.  After a brain-storming party on the chosen theme, area playwrights submit short plays on the theme.  (This year's competition garnered eighty different scripts.)  A selection committee culls the strongest plays for a staged reading with a q&a with the selected playwrights.  A final group of plays---this year an octet---is chosen for a full production.

The result this year is Variations on Family, an exceptionally polished anthology of plays produced by Rapid Lemon Productions under the tutelage of Max Garner.  Directed by Rosalind Cauthen, the evening features eight plays focused on the family, understood both as comedy and tragedy.  Despite the different genres, many of the plays focus on race and ethnicity, perhaps not surprising in a city roiling with racial conflict.  The evening is also unified by Cauthen's vigorous direction, which inserts athletic movement even into the most solemn of the constituent pieces.

Among the lighter pieces, Kimberley Lynne's "The Same Story" provides a comic slice-of-life as family members at a family reunion start to tell---you did read the title, didn't you?  This time it's about that really big insect that invaded an old road trip.  The sharp timing keeps the energetic cast (Tyrone Requer, Josh Thomas, Valerie Lewis, Sarah, Jacklin, Bob Singer, Kristina Szilagyi) moving.  Archie Williams and Tyrone Chapman's "FTP" manages to bring humor out of a most un-humorous political movement: Black Lives Matter. Tyrone Requer lends a bewildered, comic touch to the role of the demonstrator Dayshawn. Once again, the tight ensemble direction gives this piece its energy.   Larry Malkus's "Walter's Claw Hammer" provides the opportunity for Samy Hayder to give a bravura performance as the precocious child Andy, ready to snitch on anyone and anything.

The darker pieces alternate between tragedy and melodrama.  Kathleen Barber's "Myths And Other Truths" puts the finger on race and class as an African-American family (Tyrone Requer, Adrienne Knight, Samy Hader) invites a reluctant Russian-American (Kristina Szilagyi) for a meeting concerning a claim that both families have a common ancestry.  The Russian is reluctant because she proudly descends from the Romanov family---or does she?  D Carter's "Brother's Keeper" brings sibling rivalry to a boil as Josh Thomas, in a terrific performance, plays an angry homeless man who refuses to return home despite the pleas of his very proper younger brother.  The evening's darkest drama, John Conley's "The Dissertation," starkly depicts the Armenian genocide of the 1910s as an increasingly angered graduate student (Sarah Jacklin) confronts her martyred Armenian ancestors (powerfully played by Bob Singer and Kristina Szilagyi) in an explosion of grief and faith.  Jacklin brings an intense emotional energy to the once-staid student who is overwhelmed by the horrors she discovers.  Adrienne Knight and Valerie Lewis give moving performances in Shelbi Nelson's "Like Mother Like Daughter" as an adult child suddenly meets the mother who had abandoned her in childhood.

Appropriately placed as the evening's closing piece, Alice Stanley's "Welcome Baby Anderson" mixes humor and pathos in this tale of a couple awaiting the delivery of a baby they are about to adopt.  As they shoot a video as a keepsake for their child, the mother (Sarah Jacklin) becomes the comically passionate helicopter mom even before the baby arrives.  The mood suddenly turns serious when alone before the camera, the father (Josh Thomas) reveals the emotional pain which has made the couple so grateful for the child.

All of the technical support for the anthology is professional and helps give the production its polished, consistent feel.  A special standout is Casey Dutt's set design.  The backdrop of floating, empty picture frames permits the transitions between the plays to freeze in a series of haunting family portraits.