One year ago last January, Glass Mind Theatre debuted in Baltimore with Brainstorm, a festival of six short plays inspired by tweets submitted by the community. (An example: How can two people live in the same apartment at the same time and have no idea that the other one exists?) This year’s festival also features six new pieces by local playwrights, but the source of their inspiration has shifted. For Brainstorm vol. 2: Baltimore Mixtape, each writer selected two songs from a “playlist” of titles submitted by theatergoers, then shaped these source materials into characters and a story.
The resulting interpretations range from the literal (the combination of Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” and Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” yields werewolves feasting in a diner) to the abstract (Joanna Newsom’s “Monkey & Bear” and “Peach, Plum, Pear” yield something else entirely … though pears do make an appearance)—a mixed bag of theatre, as is typical of short play festivals … and yet not quite, for Baltimore Mixtape lacks one crucial element that is all the more desired for its absence: comedy.
This is not to imply that none of the plays are funny, but even at their funniest, the laughter is secondary to more serious concerns. Each playwright strives to develop a weighty theme or establish a poignant mood, and though most succeed, they also mostly succeed in the same way, relating events and backstories through poetic speeches and narration and dance-like gestures, and ending on dissonant notes of ambiguity. Even the aforementioned Zevon-Vega piece gradually abandons its farcical spirit to focus on a sad young woman who hovers vaguely above the gore. (Indeed, I could not say what connects her to the world of werewolves and diners, though she has the same name and is played by the same actress as a character from a previous play set during the Great Depression, so perhaps she is connected to that world instead … or perhaps it’s just a coincidence.)
Thus, the sum of the whole does not equal the parts, which by the second act have become overly familiar, like a mix consisting only of ballads sung in the same minor key. Still, the parts warrant mention, for the ten performers (including a rotating guest musician) cycle with great energy through triple and quadruple castings, and the six directors find intriguing moments within Ryan Devoe’s relatively spare set. Production director Britt Olsen-Ecker does a fine job coordinating the show’s diverse elements—the transitions between plays have the feel of brief plays themselves—and the atmosphere on opening night, as actors mingled with an enthusiastic audience, made for a quirky, casual spontaneity.
The show’s first act features Hollis Robbins’s “Poetic Meat,” directed by Peter Davis, in which regulars at a greasy spoon react to the suicide of a local poet; Julie Lewis’s “Which Way We Step,” directed by Jay Gilman, in which a young woman named Lorraine (Patty Griffin’s “Sweet Lorraine” was on Lewis’s playlist) relives the key moments leading up to her wedding day; and Ben Hoover’s “The Effect of Songs,” directed by Lynn Morton, in which a chorus and four nameless couples trace the arcs of parallel romances.
This last piece is by far the least concrete; the experience of watching the couples dance through their passions proves more compelling than the dialogue they recite—at times simultaneously, at times in a round—and by the end I had lost the thin thread of the story. Still, director Morton and her nine actors—the entire cast of Mixtape—demonstrate exquisite timing; in its fusion of speech, music, and movement, “The Effect of Songs” seems most to embody the collaborative spirit of Brainstorm, though all three first-act plays are given crisp, intelligent stagings.