‘Bareback Ink’ at Iron Crow Theatre Company

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A blank canvas. Every artist’s dream come true. Unless the canvas isn’t yours, and the art isn’t yours. Possession. Obsession. Failing to nurture basic needs verses carnal instincts; it’s all wrapped up in the final production of Iron Crow Theatre Company’s 2013/2014 season, Bareback Ink, a new work written by Bob Bartlett. A perpetual tempest that emotionally blindsides the audience with its tumultuous ups and downs in just 90 minutes of intense experiences. Directed by Ryan Clark, this two-person show delves deep into the psyche of relationships, basic human needs; captive situations where comfort can be mistaken for pleasure and pain is both the product and the origin of existence. This edgy and maturely-themed new work keeps audiences engaged as their minds race to keep pace with the emotional chaos of these two characters, all the while having subtle hints of the Ganymede tale sprinkled subconsciously into the mix.

When a show features only two performers everything design element of the show becomes a crucial focal point for the audience. Set Designer Heather Mork creates a metaphysical prison in her scenic work that both serves its purpose as a tattoo room and more largely on the whole encapsulates the symbolic representation of being trapped. Mork uses the stark gray walls to represent isolation without ever hinting at color, even the ink and tools are black so that when ‘Canvas’ arrives in his paint-splattered jeans and bubbling personality he infuses the room with color.

Canvas (seated- Tanner Medding) and Artist (Steve Satta) photo courtesy of Iron Crow Theatre Company
Canvas (seated- Tanner Medding) and Artist (Steve Satta) photo courtesy of Iron Crow Theatre Company

Sound Designer Jessye Black and Lighting Designer Alex Lawson work in tandem to create brilliant storm effects. Black and Lawson bring the perfect combination of storm sound effects radiating through the prison-like cell of a tattoo room; flickering lights with rumbling thunder all timed out to the perfect bolt of lightning. Black also incorporates strange sounds for the scene changeovers, just enough to throw the audience off-kilter when they think they’ve found a sense of serenity or peace, or even just balance.

Costume Designer Nick Horan draws the differences between Canvas and Artist in the same way that Mork finds these parallels in her set design. Making the Artist never have more than dingy black and white colors Horan creates the polar opposite with Canvas; brightly colored paint-stricken jeans with an eye-popping glorious purple jacket toward the end. These augment the traits of their personalities where Canvas is lively not yet having had the life beat out of him and Artist is defeated, down-trodden and confined to the solidarity of his prison. The creative team on the whole does an exceptional job of smacking symbolism into their design work and bringing it forthright to the audience’s attention.

Director Ryan Clark finds the nuances of intimacy and tension between these two characters and focuses on these two elements as the production unfolds. The tension is immediately palpable on the first encounter between Canvas and Artist and Clark builds on that much like a snowball rolling downhill in an avalanche until it comes to an explosive head, all perfectly timed out during the rage of the thunderstorm. Clark’s ability to block these notions of intimacy and tension within the confined walls of the set is to be commended as when they are farthest apart physically the intimacy between them surges that much stronger, blocked only by these waves of uncertainty radiating from Artist and pulses of desperation spewing forth from Canvas.

The intricate relationship formed between Artist (Steve Satta) and Canvas (Tanner Medding) is as tempestuous as the storm that surges periodically throughout the production. Satta and Medding have a uniquely off-kilter chemistry that sparks and thrives, lives and dies from moment to moment, continually surging forth at the audience like a churning maelstrom ready to swallow the theatre whole at any given second. The dynamic of their relationship is constantly shifting; never solid in any one state for any length of time, but rather clipping moments of ecstasy, terror, trust, and unease all in their own breaths of existence. The transformation that each character undergoes is separate but creates a third transformation of sorts; the evolution of their existence together.

Satta, as the stoic and standoffish Artist, gives a stellar performance with his unyielding presence and command of his overall existence upon the stage. His ability to appear static and unmoved is astonishing especially in comparison to the frenetic existence of Canvas. The concise and harshly punctuated delivery of his answers to questions defines his guarded nature. The gradual falling of his emotional exterior to reveal something deeply vulnerable beneath is truly moving. In relation to the effervescent performance given by Medding; Satta creates a balanced but equal opposite in this rigid character, managing to give him animated qualities that are only revealed during extremely intense moments of the performance.

Medding is a wonder to watch; constantly bubbling with an indefatigable energy that while oscillating between emotional highs and lows never dwindles. Even in his character’s most broken moments Medding is a force and presence to be reckoned with upon the stage. Developing the character’s naivette into hopeful optimism makes his tragic plight that much more mournful. Carefully crafted and beautifully constructed, Medding turns Canvas into the stunning beauty of innocence that every human being once was but will never be again. The moment that he and Satta’s characters finally unleash upon each other during the peak of the storm is intensely sensual, erotic, and so driven that it consumes every ounce of breath in existence at that moment.

A truly exceptional and visionary piece of theatre – Bareback Ink  is a Must See. It teaches many lessons about comfort and concern, trust and acceptance, finding the hope in a hopeless situation-and so much more-that words cannot simply do it justice.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

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Bareback Ink plays through June 14, 2014 at Iron Crow Theatre Company— in the Swirnow Theatre of the Mattin Center for the Arts at the Johns Hopkins Homewood Campus located at the corners of Charles Street and 33rd Street in Charles Village in Baltimore, MD. For tickets call (443) 637-2769, or purchase them online.

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Amanda Gunther is an actress, a writer, and loves the theatre. She graduated with her BFA in acting from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and spent two years studying abroad in Sydney, Australia at the University of New South Wales. Her time spent in Sydney taught her a lot about the performing arts, from Improv Comedy to performance art drama done completely in the dark. She loves theatre of all kinds, but loves musicals the best. When she’s not working, if she’s not at the theatre, you can usually find her reading a book, working on ideas for her own books, or just relaxing and taking in the sights and sounds of her Baltimore hometown. She loves to travel, exploring new venues for performing arts and other leisurely activities. Writing for the DCMetroTheaterArts as a Senior Writer gives her a chance to pursue her passion of the theatre and will broaden her horizons in the writer’s field.