Baltimore: where the theater is weird, the tickets are cheap and the world is going to hell.
That’s the snapshot of shows opened last weekend by some of Balmer’s small but rising troupes — with plays about God’s absence, a zombie presence and an imminent planetary takeover by dangerous (gulp!) potatoes.
“Potatoes of August” at EMP Collective is a droll sci-fi fantasy about humanity in a rut and a brainy breed of spuds ready to run things. The potatoes — actors dressed in khaki coveralls with lumpy potatoes stitched on — speak a highly scientific language, spouting complex theorems and numeric formulas and singing, “The theater is for the public!” as they whip up a revolution. (The public may want Cliffs Notes.) The show’s humans dress as if they have just wandered out of Sherwood Forest.
Director Evan Moritz’s cast handles the absurdity of Sibyl Kempson’s quirky, talky drama more effectively than the steaming helpings of intellectualism. You miss the nuance but get the gist.
“Potatoes” is a nifty match of material and space, though — a soul mate for EMP’s funky toehold amid the high-rises on West Baltimore Street. Theater is only one spear of what EMP offers; it’s an art gallery, movie house and general hub of creativity. The high ceilings and slender, white columns give it an aura of faded glory, while the painted milk jugs strung as party lights supply a handmade feel. EMP is slated to be one of several occupants of a planned small theater complex on Howard Street, but the squatter vibe of this spacious ground floor is certainly inviting for now.
Strand Theater Company is currently stranded, having lost its storefront base on Charles Street in the Station North district and presently operating without an artistic director. Strand is presenting the one-woman “God’s Country” on a basement stage of the nearby St. Mark’s Lutheran Church — the same church that also hosts Acme Corporation in a hall upstairs. (Acme, like EMP, is a shoestring troupe that’s part of the Howard initiative.)
“God’s Country” may sound trite in synopsis: It’s about a variety of characters venting about their troubles during a Bible-study group. But writer-performer Michelle Antoinette Nelson is a kaleidoscopic powerhouse as she segues among the eight deeply conflicted men and women in her gallery — an alcoholic study-group leader, a domestic-violence victim, a man masking his gay relationship from his wife, among other characters.
Nelson writes all this poetically, with smart, observant rhymes that often land like hammers. She seems to have a ton of vocal registers at her disposal, and her behavior consistently rings true. You would love to see how a good director could make this show even sharper, adding a little visual flair and crystallizing Nelson’s occasional machine-gun bursts of speech. And although the audience was extremely sparse Saturday night, it’s clear that the Strand, where the mission is to focus on women’s voices, is finding valuable work to do even as its future is up for grabs.
Single Carrot Theatre put down roots earlier this year, opening its own theater on North Howard Street in a space shared with upscale restaurant Parts and Labor. “It’s not safe,” the audience is told at the beginning of the current show, “Social Creatures.” With that, the crowd is herded through the alley out back and into the black box theater that has been refashioned as the scene of a zombie apocalypse.
“Social Creatures” is by Jackie Sibblies Drury, whose “We Are Proud to Present . . .” appeared at Washington’s Woolly Mammoth last season. Like “We Are Proud,” “Social Creatures” shows a group devouring itself. A self-appointed leader tries to enforce civility in the face of extreme hardship — food is scarce and zombies are lurking — but this little band of humanity just can’t get its act together.
Director Kellie Mecleary does terrific things with suspense and gore, ably using the refugees’ video testimonies, blackouts and bloody (very, very bloody) encounters in a small quarantine made of clear plastic sheets. The overlapping voices rising in argument and panic are not always artfully governed in this performance, but the setting — an abandoned theater — seems to capture this particular moment for Baltimore’s emerging troupes. Things are changing, even flying apart. How will they be put together again?
By Sibyl Kempson. Directed by Evan Moritz. Set design, Emona Stoykova; lights, Rick Gerriets; costumes, Stephanie Parks; projection designer, Dan Zink; puppet design, Lisa Krause; music director, David Crandall. With Amelia Carroll, Sarah Jacklin, Connor Kizer, Ruben Kroiz, Vii Lee, Kelvin Pittman and Mattie Rogers Kroiz. About 2 hours. Through Oct. 26 at EMP Collective, 307 W. Baltimore St., Baltimore. Tickets $15. Visit empcollective.org
Created and performed by Michelle Antoinette Nelson. Sound design, Najah Schorre Bayyan; lights, Brad Norris and Lana Riggins. About 70 minutes. At St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, 1900 St. Paul St., Baltimore. Tickets $20. Call 443-874-4917 or visit strand-theater.org
By Jackie Sibblies Drury. Directed by Kellie Mecleary. Scenic design, Sarah Lloyd; lights, Joseph Walls; costumes, Heather C. Jackson; sound design, Steven Krigel; video, Matthew Kelley. With Marianne Angelella, James Bunzli, Joan Crooks, Genevieve de Mahy, Sophie Hinderberger, Dustin C.T. Morris, Michael Salconi and Joshua Thomas. About 90 minutes. Through Nov. 2 at Single Carrot Theatre, 2600 N. Howard St., Baltimore. Tickets $18-$25. Call 443-844-9253 or visit singlecarrot.com