Chugging guitars, pounding drums and the Baltimore Rock Opera Society are all inherently linked, but the origins of the do-it-yourself theater group's latest production begin with the French house-music duo Daft Punk.
A few years ago, BROS member Chuck Green wanted to design a new helmet for an Artscape performance. He combined his initial inspiration — the sleek, dark headgear worn by Daft Punk — with King Tut, and his imagination quickly roamed beyond the task at hand. Before long, Green had dreamt of an entire world based in a futuristic city, where electricity was currency, classes were divided and an unlikely hero must save mankind from an evil pharaoh.
“I was going to try to make it a graphic novel,” Green said recently in a Station North rehearsal space, “but I can't draw.”
With a team of BROS writers, Green completed “The Electric Pharaoh,” the company's sixth original, full-length rock opera since its founding in 2007. More than two years after Green's initial idea, the play debuts Friday at Lithuanian Hall for a seven-date run before hitting the road for weekend shows in Philadelphia and Washington.
After months of script rewriting, stage blocking, various types of choreography, intensive stage design and original music arranging, “Pharaoh” finally appears ready for an audience, said director Mason Ross.
“We're all on the same page of what the show is going to feel and look like, and that's great,” Ross said less than 10 days before opening night. “Now we all need to stick to it. That's a lot of stress.”
A large source of stress is the show's design. Talk to any of the approximately 100 people involved in “Pharaoh” — entirely pizza-and-beer-fueled volunteers, according to Ross — and all will excitedly mention the production's striking visuals. Each BROS production has been proudly touted as “the most ambitious yet” but none have placed such an obvious emphasis on dynamic costumes and settings like “Pharaoh.”
“At the beginning of the process, there was a lot of hesitancy toward the [technology] that goes into the show,” said Ross, a veteran of Baltimore's theater scene but first-time BROS director. “We're doing stuff that could fail horribly.”
There are lights on every costume, for example, and their purpose is not to simply light up a room, Ross said. Instead, radio frequency signals are wirelessly sent from the control booth to micro-controllers attached to costumes and props. The results, when done properly, are eye-catching.
“They're not white LEDs that just have to blink to the music. They do every color. They do chases and all sorts of effects,” he said.
The team behind “Pharaoh” is forthcoming about technological concerns, but more elusive when asked about the plot.
Jon Dallas, a first-time BROS actor who plays the protagonist Chenzira, called his character a “meek little boy” with “a lot of secrets that are revealed throughout the show.” Green called the character a reluctant hero who only chooses to save the world “after a great loss to himself.” Both agreed the show has subtle commentary and morals that will apply to today’s society, such as our dependency on technology.
“This show is like a set of Fun House mirrors. It shows you a distorted and stretched-out reflection of reality,” Dallas, a 24-year-old alumnus of Towson University's theater program, said. “Sometimes it's going to shock you and sometimes you're going to laugh. ... It's a huge spectacle.”
Even the Pharaoh is larger than life. Amanda Rife, another Towson theater alum, wears 18-inch stilts to transform into the play's villain.
“I'm 6'8” in the stilts. It'll be a pretty big shock for people seeing me after the show,” Riff said with a laugh.
In the spirit of BROS, Rife has welcomed a new challenge. Throughout the show, her face is never seen, which has forced the actress to concentrate on the role's physical challenges.
“It's really interesting to remove facial expression from your acting,” she said. “It's really pushed me to explore my vocal range and my physicality.”
Across the board, cast and crew are thoughtful and enthusiastic about their roles because everyone involved takes BROS seriously. The group's reputation as a fun-loving, D.I.Y. theater company is on purpose, but its members are not shy about their ambitions.
Earlier this year, BROS took its debut production, 2009's “Grundlehammer,” to Philadelphia and Alexandria, Va., for the first time. “Pharaoh” will also hit the road, which will bring BROS a step closer to becoming a full-on touring theater company, Green said.
“That's our next frontier,” Green, a building engineer by day, said. “One day I'll get to the point where I'll quit all of the other jobs I have and only go on the road with BROS.”
A similar force drives Ross, who has seen D.I.Y. theater all across the country. He said something special continues to happen in Baltimore, and “Pharaoh” is the next, heavily illuminated sign of things to come.
“Seeing other places and seeing what their theater and art scenes are like — it does not compare to Baltimore in any way, shape or form,” Ross said. “I love this city.”