When Center Stage recently announced its "Third Space(s)" project, designed to introduce fresh works in unconventional venues, the company wasn't kidding.
The inaugural venture, presented this weekend in the midst of the annual Baltimore Book Festival, is a 2007 piece by British playwright Clare Bayley about refugees called "The Container," which is exactly what it takes place in -- specifically, a semi's trailer, which has room for a dozen or so audience members per performance.
Although the space is not overly tight and confining, those prone to claustrophobia may still find it a bit daunting, especially after the rear door is slammed shut. (Some British productions have used pretty small, stand-alone containers, judging by photos I've seen; the truck trailer here, parked alongside Mount Vernon Place United Methodist, is a bit roomier, I imagine.)
It takes some adjusting to being closed up for about an hour in low light, but it's easy to get caught up in the nervous lives of five people at the heart of the play, all of them very close to the audience. These unfortunate souls have paid a shifty agent what is, for them, a great deal of money to be transported illegally into England, hidden in a shipping container.
This is a decidedly polemical work, and lots of buttons are pushed along the way. In addition to the volatile topic of immigration, there is a good deal of focus on the conflicts of Muslims vs. the West, and also Muslim vs. Muslim (the Taliban's campaign against the education of women, for example). Matters of sex and class enter the picture as well.
In the end, the bigger themes are not as striking as the basic human concerns raised by "The Container" -- the risks people take to be free and have a chance for something better in their lives; the easy ways they can be exploited; the dreams and illusions that can keep them going.
The raw reality of life in a sealed space with no conveniences is also driven home; vomiting and makeshift toilet business is all realistically acted out.
If there are not too many surprises as the characters reveal more about themselves, and as their predicament gets scarier and more complicated, the compact, tense play succeeds at giving a tough subject a very human face.
The cast, directed by Johanna Gruenhut, encountered a few tentative moments Friday night, but delivered a potent performance overall.
There was a major distraction from the rock band playing outside for the book fair, but, after a while, that just became one more trial the refugees had to endure inside their dark, dank, stuffy world.
Performances continue through Sunday. Admission is free, but tickets have to be reserved. You can also take your chances signing up on the spot as a stand-by (on Friday, all the standbys got in).Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun