Given the proximity of Halloween, not to mention TV's persistent obsession with the undead, it's not surprising to find a portion of Baltimore's cultural scene having apocalyptic fits these days.
Single Carrot Theatre is under siege by zombies; EMP Collective is being overrun by mutant potatoes. What fun.
Things are never entirely normal and business-as-usual at Single Carrot, anyway (which is just as it should be), so you almost expect the unconventional way the company launches each performance of Jackie Sibblies Drury's "Social Creatures." I won't spoil it. Just know there's a reason the doors don't exactly open at curtain time.
The play is set in an abandoned theater, which gives Single Carrot a great opportunity to use just about every inch of its own new space to full advantage. The atmospheric scenic design by Sarah Lloyd is supported at every turn by eerie lighting (Joseph Walls) and obligatory, ominously rumbling sounds (Steven Krigel).
Shades of "Lord of the Flies," "Night of the Living Dead" and a whole mess of other works fall all over "Social Creatures," limiting the freshness factor. You know the scenario: A small band of survivors from some strange disaster try to keep from turning on each other as they hunker down; strange, threatening creatures roam outside (or maybe alongside).
The play tosses in some potentially provocative issues, especially about race and entitlement, but doesn't let them blossom fully. And attempts at humor aren't wildly successful. Still, it's a neat enough little shocker, with the essential spilling of blood and guts at just the right time. (The scariest thing for me was the sound of a character trying to sing.)
Single Carrot's cast, directed by Kellie Mecleary, gets into spirit of things nicely, often loudly. Sophie Hinderberger nails the we-need-to-follow-rules urgency of de facto community leader Mrs. Jones (the survivors have all adopted commonplace pseudonyms).
Joan Crooks is quite endearing as the naive Mrs. Wilson. The rest of the ensemble , which includes Genevieve de Mahy (as a rather hungry Mrs. Smith), does more or less effective work.
Note that Single Carrot is taking this zombie theme seriously. The company offered a post-performance discussion, "Zombies in Popular Culture," earlier this week. On Sunday, the topic is "Race, Class, and Consumerism." And my favorite, slated for Oct. 26: "If Zombies Descend on the City of Baltimore." Given the near-panic in the air over germs, that session could be a sell-out.
A different kind of threat fuels the determinedly surreal play by Sibyl Kempson being staged at EMP Collective: Sentient spuds.
In "Potatoes of August," two pairs of humans gradually become aware of starchy, chatty beings in their midst who spout mathematical equations and generate discussions of God, Hebrew and what-not.
The human couples have plenty of issues of their own. Fern (Amelia Carroll) wants her Vietnam vet husband, Buck (Ruben Kroiz), to get a vasectomy reversal, even though she is way into her senior years.
Gordon (Kelvin Pittman) contemplates retirement as a hunter-gatherer, while Bethy (Mattie Rogers-Kroiz) seems to obsess about getting respect and rational answers -- "Is this realism? Is this real? Is this realistic?" she asks when things around her are anything but.
At one point, someone shouts, "There's no explanation, but there's lots of meaning." If only.
"Potatoes of August" contains enough absurdist material, spiced with off-the-wall metaphysical musings, to make for a diverting trip to la-la land, if not quite enough to sustain two acts. The EMP staging, directed by Evan Moritz, has a certain charm, but needs to be tighter and funnier.
While Sarah Jacklin, Conner Kizer and V Lee get under the skins of the potatoes, spouting and sprouting quite vividly, amateurish, self-conscious acting among the rest of the cast takes a toll. Some rough singing (the play includes bits of music) doesn't help.
The intimate performance area gets sufficient color from Emona Stoykova's scenic design and projections by Dan Zink. There are droll touches in the costuming (Steph Parks), which, for some reason, puts the humans in medieval garb; and there are clever puppet and potato fashioned by Lisa Krause and Gina Denton. The sound design (David Crandall) is a considerable asset.