Commodities – Bought and Sold
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
It’s fucking appropriate that Commodities, the newest show from the Baltimore theater collective known as The Oven, is playing directly down the street from The Meyerhoff, home of the BSO, and also just around the corner from the Baltimore School for the Arts. Both of these institutions are currently presenting that perennial holiday favorite, The Nutcracker. I fought hoards of children in sparkly dresses, beaming with Christmas cheer, some clutching teddy bears, up and down Preston Street and Maryland Avenue, trying to get to BTP on time. See, Commodities is about the opposite of those sweet, well-cared for, cherished children. Commodities is about other children. Abused, sold, neglected children. Lost children. And, just like this show, hiding in the dark of Baltimore Theater Project, they exist just down the street from the glittering meccas of city life. Right outside our doors.
Commodities, by Jackson Phippin (who also directed), is structured through the monologues of five human trafficking victims: Kenny (Alex Shade), LaDawn (Clifford Doby), Ruby (Kat Kaplan), Ashlee (Chelsea Blackwell) and Nadine (Jessica Parsell). They are isolated on floating islands, lit by harsh, rapidly changing florescent lights that seem to expose rather than illuminate. They wear outrageously high platforms and pumps, tight dresses and jeans, short skirts, tiny shorts, all of it looking uncomfortable in one way or another, ill-fitting, non-matching, makeup smeared and clownish. They’re covered in bruises, both literally and metaphorically. They don’t meet your eyes. They are alone, but they are also united through the excellent use of choral speaking, which Phippin handles extraordinarily well. At various times, they bolster, echo, confront, and comfort one another through repeated, overlapping vocals that are almost like singing. It’s a creepy, haunting effect that serves the show, tying it together and giving it shape.
The cast is uniformly excellent. They give vivid life to the stories, delivering devastating lines in the sort of off-the-cuff way that is characteristic of true numbness: “I heard it in my mother’s voice,” “Sometimes when things get really bad,” “That motherfucker was my best friend,” “Get pretty.” All of them are heartbreaking, but Jesus Christ, Alex Shade and Jessica Parsell nearly annihilated me, as did Clifford Doby as the transgender LaDawn. The narratives are different, but they have ominous similarities, one of the most striking being the oft mentioned predators (they go by a lot of names: Greg, James, Rico, Beau, Johnny, Tim, Mike). These men are never seen, but are clearly right outside the light, watching, raping, hitting, shooting up, selling, saying “I love you”, circling like a pack of wolves in maggoty sheepskins. They buy and sell people for sex. They are in the business of extinguishing humanity.
If I have a complaint about the show, it would be the way that the talkback was handled. This is a show that clearly demands a talkback, a discussion, and The Oven, as a self-proclaimed social action theater company, rightly provided one. But the show was so emotionally charged that I felt like going directly from the closing bows to the talkback, with absolutely no opportunity for the audience to process at all, was a mistake. It felt like the production team was trying to trap us before anyone had the chance to take off, which I don’t think was necessary. This is the kind of show an audience wants to respond to, but we mostly sat in stunned silence, which did a disservice to the sorely needed discourse. Also, the talkback had no moderator. The two people invited to talk to us about human trafficking (and I’m so sorry I didn’t get their names) were informative, passionate and wonderful, but a good moderator makes or breaks a talkback session. They keep it moving, substantive and balanced. Call dramaturg Ann Turiano and see what she’s doing, she’s the best talkback moderator in Baltimore, indeed, that I’ve ever seen.
BOTTOM LINE: Commodities is a difficult show to watch, but it is absolutely essential that you do so. A few weeks ago, I demanded theater that was “about something” and well, this is it. Fiercely written, with insanely strong performances, confident direction, and innovative tech, Commodities is a breathlessly powerful show from what I am calling the most exciting and relevant new company in Baltimore. See it.
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