Something Like Jazz Music, at Single Carrot Theatre in Baltimore, is something like a montage time traveling piece, with challenging parts that engaged me and the audience to rethink the way local life was in the Roaring 20s.
This world premiere, creatively written by one of the theater’s ensemble members, Genevieve de Mahy, centers around the contents of old luggage and a dresser discovered by employees at a nearby warehouse. Once they start wearing their contents (because after all, curiosity kills the cat, right?) it is as if Pandora’s Box is opened – the hats, sweaters, and coats conjure up all kinds of human foibles from the 1920s, and thankfully the play doesn’t only depict all the stereotypical giddy times of wild parties and flapper dancing. No, this piece delves deeper into the underbelly of that time period, exploring racism, infidelity, violence, and uneasy relationships.
The attire in the suitcases magically make the characters confront the original owner’s circumstances, made crystal clear by the actors’ flailing of arms and recoil, along with the incredible sound design by Steven Krigel. He has created this giant whooshing ripping sound each time the spirits from the past enter and leave the actors’ bodies. Krigel also cues us as to what decade we are in by a soundtrack of appropriate jazz music, and for the present time, a cacophony of clinking small metallic sounds, like spoons in a wind chime sort of sound, but slightly mechanical too, which works well for each time we go back to the present day warehouse setting.
The play moves at breakneck speed, hence it reminds one of a film montage. One must stay alert to catch the connections between characters and recognize the puzzle pieces which fit together. To be honest, this play is so rich and dense with content and meaning that if I watched it again, I am sure I would find moments I had not previously discovered, and then realize even more of them upon a third viewing. It’s challenging theater at its best – forcing you to think about perceptions of a time almost 100 years ago, and the ordinary people who lived in that era. It is not a fluff-filled farce, but it has its entertaining and comical moments, including one where an actress (Lauren Saunders) dons a winter coat in such a way that she’s got herself a dance partner. Very clever, indeed!
Something Like Jazz Music’s cast is comprised of three actors from the theater’s ensemble, Paul Diem, Dustin C.T. Morris, and Lauren Saunders, and three other actors – Christopher Dews, Samuel Dumarque Wright, and Nancy Linden. All six of them effectively collaborated to create a wide array of 14 different personalities and their situations under the smart direction by both Alix Fenhagan and the aforementioned Steven Krigel (They are also ensemble members.) What a fun challenge it must have been in early rehearsals to select suitcase items which sparked character development. This show is fantastic for these talented actors, who can transform themselves in and out of characters with just a snap of the fingers (a device used in the speakeasy scenes, to hilarious effect at one point by Paul Diem.)
The sparce set does its job to permit for seamless and lightning quick scene changes. Kudos goes to Single Carrot production team for the jarring use of refracted, spinning lighting (by Mary A. Sykes) and by incorporating projections on the walls of either end of the playing area. These helped reinforce that we were at a beach, or in a rose garden, or at a KKK rally to name a few of the locales. The period looking costumes, designed by Heather Jackson, were often layered, or a simple hat or apron was donned to signify when the action takes place.
Question marks popped up in my head throughout this 90 minute show which has no intermission. And that’s a good thing, as the play is meant to do just that, make you ponder what you are watching, make sense of it all. The script includes snippets of poetry by Langston Hughes and quotes by W. E. Dubois, which add to the A-HA moments, thanks to the heartfelt line delivery by Christopher Dews.
The program notes include this perceptive comment: “The past is perpetually elusive and inaccessible. History is framed and reframed based on the person or people viewing it: the tides of present day politics, trends, and mindsets skew our lens. We are both the product of the past and the producers of the history we recognize.”
Join this community of characters, past the tempting appeal of nostalgia and explore the stories of those who came before. Observe their joys and sorrows. Life has largely changed since then, or has it?
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Something Like Jazz Music plays through March 27, 2016 at Single Carrot Theatre – 2600 North Howard Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (443) 884-9253, or purchase them online.