By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun
1:57 PM EST, December 7, 2012
Well before the first performance last week of Lola Pierson's latest work, "Office Ladies," it was advertised as a "hit play."
That's the sort of cheekiness you might expect from a young, DIY-type theater company that calls itself the Acme Corporation, inspired by all the not-so-safe-or-reliable products packed in boxes stamped "Acme" that appear in classic Looney Tunes cartoons.
"We just know the play's going to be a hit," said Stephen Nunns, one of the forces behind the company, which has ties to Towson University, where he teaches and directs the MFA program in theater arts. Nunns laughed as he said that, but there is good reason for confidence in this project.
Pierson has a record of creating intriguing works, and she is collaborating with Alex Scally from the top-notch, Baltimore-based indie band Beach House. He has written music for the play and, joined by Stephen Strohmeier, is playing it during each performance. (Some portions of the score will be heard in prerecorded form.)
That lineup of talent would be enough to make the play a hot ticket. A top admission of $10 won't hurt, either.
"Office Ladies," which is being presented in Acme Corporation's home base at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in the Station North area, focuses on six women who work in the same place.
"Each is obsessed with something," said Pierson, who is also directing the production. "For one of them, it's ants. For another, it's time. For someone else, it's water. The obsessions rob them of their humanity, and this is mirrored by the music, we hope. The idea behind the play — it's a common theme of art — is that humanity is being sucked out of everything."
The roughly 75-minute play is Pierson's final project for her master's degree at Towson University. The theater department, known for nurturing new work and ensembles (including the LGBT-focused Iron Crow Theatre Company), is co-producing "Office Ladies."
"They encourage a lot of experimental work," Pierson said. "I've written kind of a weirdo script for this play, with a nonlinear narrative and atypical structure. And, at points, it's not as accessible."
Pierson, a founding member of the UnSaddestFactory troupe and organizer of its 10-minute play festival held at the Bell Foundry for the past few years, grew up in Mount Washington. One of her childhood friends was Scally.
The two 29-year-olds first worked on a theatrical venture in 2009, "The Prettiest Place on Earth," which was presented at Load of Fun.
"Since then, we've been trying to figure out his tour schedule, which is so crazy," Pierson said. "We planned dates two years in advance, and then decided on a work, which feels backward."
By November of last year, the concept for "Office Ladies" was settled; Scally had the script in March.
"I've admired Lola's work for a long time," Scally said. "I'm excited about putting music to something, not just writing a traditional song — chorus, verse, bridge. There is something very basic, but very essential, about the characters in the play, and I use simple themes to express them. It's like how themes are used in a film, where different arrangements of the themes can give you different feelings."
Although there are songs in the work — Pierson wrote the lyrics — the collaborators avoid using the term "musical." It's more a play with music.
It's also a play with a particular venue in mind.
Before settling into St. Mark's this season, the Acme Corporation spent its first year in the basement of the Bell Foundry, a historic building near Penn Station.
"That was really something, like going into Hitler's bunker," Nunns said. "We did some Beckett plays there and new works as a trial run. We wanted to take people on a pretty wild ride. It went very well, so we decided to keep doing stuff."
That stuff included Yury Urnov's "deconstruction" of Chekhov's "Three Sisters," where the siblings were zombies, performed in the Foundry's backyard last spring. When St. Mark's spread the word that it was open to housing a theater company, the Acme Corporation checked it out.
"Office Ladies" is the first production the company is presenting at the church; three more, including a collaboration between Nunns and Urnov, will be presented there this season.
"It is not a traditional space for theater, but this works with what we're doing," Nunns said. "The idea behind the company is that it combines DIY and the youthful energy that exists in Baltimore and massage that with a more traditional theater approach. Being in a regular theater would not exactly be right for us. This feels like going to church, which is cool."
Pierson's play is being performed in a circular, high-ceilinged upstairs hall where the former Baltimore Opera Chorus used to hold rehearsals. The room itself, with its small balcony, has become a part of the production.
"One of the things that's cool about the piece is that it so specific to this space," Scally said. "I can't imagine how you would make this in a regular theater."
Not that the collaborators would be interested in taking the play outside Baltimore, or even outside St. Mark's. The two-week performance run, which ends Saturday, is all that is planned.
"When I worked on a play with Lola before, we gave out a CD of the music, but that's against the point a little bit," Scally said.
He doesn't intend to record the music for "Office Ladies." Pierson doesn't intend to preserve the show on video, and audience members will be discouraged from sneaking footage of the performances.
"It's cool that the play exists in a specific room," Pierson said, "The room itself has an atmosphere that can't be documented. And these songs will exist only here. As we become more engaged with our [hand-held electronic] devices, that [sense] is going away more and more."
Added Scally: "I like that this is not a big production you can just shift from city to city. I love anything that can exist in only one place in time."
If you go
"Office Ladies" will be performed at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday at St. Mark's Lutheran Church, 1900 St. Paul St. Go to theacmecorporation.com.
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