There are plenty of opportunities to experience theater in Baltimore. The options cover a wide spectrum from the staged readings of fledgling playwrights to full scale, professional productions of the classics. What popped up recently in a little Church in Hampden offered theater fans the chance to experience more than one of those options at the same time.
It also offered the community a chance to take part in the old world tradition of receiving guests in the parlor and enjoying refreshments, conversation and recitals.
Parlor Plays is the brain child of Peter Davis who set out to bring theater directly to the people. His vision is performers present work in parlors of homes throughout the Baltimore region and transform those homes into live, interactive theater spaces. It is the equivalent of a house concert for theater.
For his premier presentation he chose Church and Company’s intimate performance space on the upper floor of an old renovated church at the corner of Falls Road and 37th Street in Hampden. Peter’s pop-up theater group didn’t stage a production in the traditional sense. There was no set or lighting design to create illusions. Instead, the performance and the audience were in the same space and sat on the same level. The company arranged comfortable chairs and set out refreshments much as one would when preparing for a dinner party. A special space was left open for presenting entertainment. The recorded music played was strategically chosen to set the mood.
After a period of milling about enjoying cocktails, guests were invited to have a seat and the entertainment began. There were two ten-minute plays that were well rehearsed and near fully developed. Following that was a reading of a short excerpt from a longer play called, The Gathering, for which the audience was invited to participate by reading for one of the characters. The plays and the reading were followed by a period of lively discussion between the cast, the production team and the audience.
All three plays were written and directed by Davis who is inspired by the format of the ten-minute play.
“It’s a great exercise in economy of language, storytelling and theatrical elements,” said Davis, “Everything has impact. You hit the ground running with the complication and resolve it.”
The first play, Orange, is about a couple who find their relationship is stagnating. Tommy, played by Jessica Ruth Baker is feeling frustrated and bored by the dynamic of their exchange. Betty, played by Rebecca Henry, is trying to be a good sport about Tommy’s suggestion that they spice it up with a little dominant/ submissive sex play. Orange is their safe word but Betty finds she needs to use it before the games even begin. This triggers a tug of war for control over the direction their relationship is going to take.
The play was originally written to be performed by a man and a woman, but for this production it featured two women. This changed the plays potential to its detriment not because this dynamic couldn’t happen in a relationship between two women but because the language still felt gender oriented and the chemistry between the actors didn’t sync. Henry’s performance was infused with sexual playfulness that ran directly counter to her characters reticence and inhibitions which caused a disconnection between the intention and the execution of the script. Baker’s performance felt unnatural, as if she was unable to embody the gender that the script was written for but couldn’t quite make it read naturally for a woman either.
The second play, Number 9, was much more successful. It introduces the audience to an aging, ailing batman as he waxes nostalgic about his super hero, crime fighting days. Batman, deftly played by Peter Davis was a cynical, grumpy old man who longs to rekindle the good old days with one of the two Robins still living. For those who don’t follow the original comics, there were ten Robins who played sidekick to Batman and several of them were women. Number 9’s Robin, played by Alexandra Hewett, had her crime-fighting career interrupted by an unexpected pregnancy that shifted both her priorities and the course of her life. Now she is content with her new role as soccer mom and thwarts Batman’s attempts to convince her otherwise.
This play is well thought out, engaging and funny. The chemistry between Davis and Hewett is natural and over all it was a pleasure to watch. But the amusing premise on the surface of it also served as an excellent framework for the deeper and more complex exploration of the shifting power between two people in a relationship over the course of time.
Both plays explored the themes of power in relationships and the emotional development or degradation of those relationships as they mature. The third play examines our varied responses to love and loss.
The Gathering is a scene from one of three plays written by Davis set in Southern New Mexico along the Rio Grande. The 3-play series is called Death and Desire and may be material presented in upcoming Parlor Plays. The excerpt that was read featured seven characters. It centered on a character who had left the funeral of his mother because he couldn’t tolerate the imposition of other people’s grief onto his own. That didn’t stop the others from imposing, though, as one by one the mourners came to speak to him.
Davis cast the reading by selecting willing members of the audience who came forward to their side-by-side seats on the performance space directly in front of the audience. Each was handed a script and assigned a role by Davis who oversaw the reading.
Watching a trained actor read from an original script in its developmental stages is one thing but watching a laymen do it is another experience. It removes the artifice, the pomp and circumstance of traditional theater and exposes the direct correlation between the words on the page and their potential to come to life. It fleshes out the weakness in dialogue or the potentially catastrophic results of a poorly chosen phrase. Mistakes in a reading can lead to new found inspiration for the playwright. It is an opportunity for everyone involved to have a hand in the creation of something new. It’s also quite fun.
The discussion that followed the show was a warm and lively. It ranged in topic from theater to writing to superheroes. There was a sense that the members of the cast and the audience had bonded over the course of the evening. The company members were very engaged and pleased.
The Anglo term parlor or parlour as it was originally written derives from the French word parl(er), which means to speak. The original use of the word was as a noun describing the room in the house where guests were received and entertained. Traditionally, the parlor was opened up to allow guests to come in and enjoy a musical performance or the recitation of a poem. The forms of entertainment have changed with the transitioning cultural trends. It was once popular for folks to gather and play interactive games like Charades or Pictionary.
The advent of technology brought television, Netflix and videogames into the homes of most middle to upper class Americans and the tradition of parlor entertainment seems to have gone by the wayside. Davis would like to change that with his Parlor Plays and perhaps he is onto something. Each experience has the potential to be totally unique. After Davis and the host decide on which plays will be chosen, Davis and his players will get to work staging them for that particular home. Perhaps Parlor Plays will be the next form of interactive entertainment that doesn’t require plugging into anything more than the guests imagination.
*Author Nancy Murray is a writer, theater director, and arts critic.