The outside-the-mainstream segment of Baltimore's theater world is churning up provocative activity these days.
Among the latest examples is "A Beginner's Guide to Deicide," the opening salvo in Single Carrot Theatre's seventh season. It gives you an opportunity to challenge your long-held religious beliefs, or congratulate yourself anew for not having any.
"Skeleton Hearts," a production of three one-act plays from the Acme Corporation, confronts issues of life and death in ways that alternate between poetic, frantic, static and nutty. The audience also gets a good physical workout with this one.
"Deicide," a 2005 work by Qui Nguyen and Robert Ross Parker, is basically an overly extended skit fueled by a lot of college-level humor. When, in the second act, the playwrights pile on the philosophy and morals to the story, the effect is not entirely persuasive. But a cheeky, quality holds things together neatly enough.
The center of attention is Lucy (who knew Lucifer had such a cute nickname?). She reveals something of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's wryness and drive, in this case directed at wiping out the entity she describes as "God. The Creator, a.k.a. the world's biggest, baddest mofo." Lucy, initially armed with a hatchet and later with a Ninja-worthy sword, proceeds to time-travel backward on her murderous quest.
She has a sidekick she calls Skeeter (real name Mary — gee, where have I heard that name before in a religious context?), and the two women experience quite the little history lesson during their journey. Darwin and Joan of Arc are among the colorful characters that pop up.
After presenting a couple of plays last season in need of more editing and/or stronger stagings, it's good to find Single Carrot back in the groove with this one. Directed with generally firm momentum by Elliott Rauh, the cast reveals abundant faith in the material.
Decked out like a porn vision of a Catholic school girl (costumes by Heather C. Jackson), Lauren Saunders has a helluva romp as Lucy. Britt Olsen-Ecker is funny and sweet as Mary. Chris Dews takes on multiple roles, including two-thirds of the Holy Trinity, with admirable flair.
The production provides some droll visual kicks, including a crazy puppet and a street sign marked "Yah Way." There's cool animation, too; an off-the-wall video about a "blue Ninja" is a highlight.
Attending the Acme Corporation's triple bill requires climbing a lot of stairs to get to and from the separate performance spaces inside St. Mark's Lutheran Church, which the company calls home. Some patience is needed, too, to absorb the one premiere in the mix, Lola B. Pierson's "Heart Happens.'
This slice of theater of the absurd, directed by Ida Daniel, presents three characters that seek or dispense wisdom ("Cleaning is just hiding things from other people"), while dealing with their various needs and fears.
The main event is an organ transplant involving plastic sheeting and an electric drill; it made me think of a vintage Supremes song: "Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart." (There is original music by Todor Stoyanov at other points, seeming to parody the Russian "Trololo" song that went viral on YouTube.)
Much of the play is heavy-going and forced, but the cast — Naomi Kline, Cricket Arrison, Geoff Graham — handles it all with finesse, personality and conviction.
More satisfying is Samuel Beckett's "Rockaby." A woman (Temple Crocker) sits and stares in a rocking chair as thoughts of her lonely existence and approaching demise emerge, mostly heard on pre-recorded tape. The intricately layered, reiterative poem-like text exerts a haunting pull, which this staging, directed by Stephen Nunns and moodily lit by Eric Nightengale, effectively supports.
Better still is Sam Shepard's "Killer's Head." This 10-minute monologue captures the final stream — make that torrent — of consciousness from a man in an electric chair. Presented in an almost uncomfortably intimate setting, the production (also directed by Nunns) features a performance of virtuosic nuance and arresting intensity from Chris Ashworth.