What’s in a name? That which we call Alex and Olmsted would by any name or names be full of innovation, emotion, and wry commentary on contemporary conventions. They are, however, the names that I recognize from their work with Happenstance Theater. Their newest show, Marooned! A Space Comedy, is also aptly named. After a brief abstract introduction to physical expressiveness and a prologue that wordlessly recounts the evolution of life on earth, the action takes place in the deep reaches of space.
Exactly what Alex and Olmsted are doing is much harder to name. It’s theater, but calling it “experimental” would be wrong, as so much of it feels familiar. It’s not a pantomime performance, except much of it is. It isn’t dance, though it includes the grace and precision of ballet, coupled with the emotional elements of modern dance. There are projections, a full soundscape, silent film–style intertitles, a big round screen that is sometimes a planet or moon, also everything else. Referring to it as “non-dialogue–based multimedia dramatic performance” would be technically accurate, but not sufficiently descriptive.
And there’s the prevalence of puppets. I suppose the Jim Henson Foundation Grant–awarded status might’ve cued me in, but honestly? “Puppet show” means Kukla, Fran, and Ollie to me, or Lamb-Chop’s Play-Along, The Lonely Goat-herd in The Sound of Music, kids and a couple of socks with eyeballs, Punch and Judy, or even Avenue Q. This is not that. This is not any of that. What it is …. Well, for example, I clearly remember Alex Vernon’s puppet of an oddly emotive windblown newspaper in Happenstance Theater’s 2015 show, Cabaret Noir. Seven years ago, if you please, and that newspaper is still blowing around in my brain. Alex and Olmsted’s Marooned! is a reminder that “puppet” is a bigger category than a thing with a head.
The space at Theatre Project, which is located downtown near the BSO and the Lyric and across from a parking garage, is tricky — though not impossible — for mobility-compromised people. It’s also a tad tricky for people who are wearing fancy-heeled footwear. Once people are seated somewhere in the steeply raked bank of comfy theater chairs, it’s ideal.
The vantage point and cushioned seat are welcome, as Alex and Olmsted’s physical storytelling has its own gravitational force. The magnetism of the performers, the deliberately slow-paced action, the array of media and the required attention to interpret the story were so mesmerizing that I sat still for the unbroken 70 minutes, rearranging myself only once because my foot had gone to sleep. It is extraordinarily engaging to immerse into this performance collage, which, despite feeling deeply familiar, is packed with startling surprises. One surprise is that so much of the show is not language-based. Much of it is non-vocal. Another surprise is the first vocal sound effect, which comes perhaps a third of the way into the performance.
Authors Alex Vernon and Sarah Olmsted Thomas are responsible for more than the story and performance: they designed and built all of the media, projections, puppets, costumes, and soundscape. Production values are very high, and I have special appreciation for the sound effects, music, and vocal punctuation. Lighting by Scotty Walker is seamlessly illuminating and works beautifully with the other visual effects, creating a highly integrated production.
Finally, I’d like to recognize, in no particular order, the construction of a puppet onstage as part of the action, Sarah Olmsted Thomas’s exquisitely communicative performance without the use of her face, Alex Vernon’s embodiment of near-but-not-quite zero gravity force on the planet, and a particularly clever bit with a drill.
The run of performances of Marooned! A Space Comedy at Theatre Project ends after the 3:00 pm performance on May 8. I wish I’d seen it sooner, so I could see it again.
Running Time: 70 minutes, without intermission.
Marooned! A Space Comedy by Alex & Olmsted plays through May 8, 2022, at Baltimore Theatre Project — 45 W. Preston Street in Baltimore, MD. For tickets ($20, $15 student/senior/artist/military) call the box office at (410) 752-8558 or purchase them at the door or online.
Appropriate for ages 5.
The program for Marooned! A Space Comedy is here.
COVID Safety: All patrons must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Please bring a proof of vaccination (either the original vaccination card, or a photo of the card) along with a valid ID. All guests must wear masks while inside Theatre Project.
Marooned! A Space Comedy
Devised by Alex and Olmsted
Lighting by Scotty Walker
Alex and Olmsted (Alex Vernon and Sarah Olmsted Thomas)
The Great Cosmic Space Peanut is played by Sylvia Vernon