Winter Haunts – The First Thing That Happens, Hamlet

BY THE BAD ORACLE

Late winter isn’t exactly the right time for ghost stories, despite the uneasiness of transitional seasons, but Baltimore small theater is serving them up to largely good effect.  Lola B. Pierson’s The First Thing That Happens, with a limited run at the new Voxel (brainchild of Christopher Ashworth of theatrical software company Figure 53) is haunted by an artist’s fear of failure, while Charm City Classic’s Hamlet is dizzy with potential, and more literal spooks.

Happens is ostensibly an opera, but the reed-thin score courtesy Horse Lords barely merits the word, the first clue that labels may not be as important as we think.  Actors stalk around a stage littered with the detritus of ancient communications equipment, analogue televisions and tape ripped from VHS cassettes (set design by Pierson, and Anna Fitzgerald), their eyes distant, their faces solemn, and directly ask us to connect.  Do we? Eventually. Before that happens, though, Pierson, who wrote and directed, takes us through a hilarious tour of theatrical form, one that is surprisingly warm; Happens functions as both an example and send up of metatheatre, it plays with the audience’s inward groans when confronted with Too Much Art (one of my favorite moments is when an actor breaks the tension after the stark first movement, “Just kidding!” she says, “God, can you imagine if it was all like that?”).  

Towards the middle of the short run time, about 45 minutes, Happens finds its center.  Pierson addresses the audience, through the mouths of her players, in a shockingly personal crescendo.  The aching limitations of artistic form suddenly become apparent; how do you score a nervous breakdown? What are the stage directions for the last IVF try, the line notes for an existential crisis?  What do we do when our modes of expression feel entirely lacking? The moment is tinged with bitterness, laced with fear, and Pierson succeeds. We do care. And yes, probably, as the chorus anxiously reminds us, we’ve misunderstood, maybe we’re too fucking stupid, maybe art is stupid.  But we care. And that’s something.

Charm City Classic’s Hamlet, directed by Patrick J. Regal, is another production playing with form with fairly good results.  Bare-bones staged in an art gallery, Regal achieves a sort of 1960’s lab theater vibe, minimalism by intent.  The ensemble of five drift in, out and around the performance space, gently including the audience as more than spectators.  The flow is incredibly graceful, avoiding indulgent moments of actors “becoming and defining,” instead, Regal allows the characters to carry shades of their former selves; Horatio’s (Autumn Koehnlein) anxiety leaving the stage becomes Ophelia’s (also Koehnlein) upon entering it.  This makes the central question of Hamlet’s (Tim Neil) sanity one of possession, madness as contagion passed from person to person, which is an interesting take.

Neil doesn’t make any earth-shaking observations, but their Hamlet is pleasingly and low-key bratty, with DNA of Caulfield and Lord Byron in Converse, and their chemistry with Koehnlein blushingly good.  Bill Bodie barnstorms in a rattling performance as the Ghost (of course, he’s also Claudius), and Regal himself is a comedian trapped inside a tragedy, his timing and inflection, particularly when coupled with Koehnlein as the hapless Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, makes for some of the funniest moments in the show, even if I could have lived without the pop-cultural asides (the show is perceptive enough to keep our attention without the snark).  Costuming from Taylor Malone is delightfully thoughtful, it’s amazing what’s done with a simple unifying color palette.

The First Thing That Happens, presented by The Acme Corporation, ran at The Voxel from February 13th-March 1st.

Hamlet, presented by Charm City Classics, is running at Function Coworking Community until March 8th. 

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