The whole crazy business of falling for someone — jitters, confusion, uplift, deflation — has generated many a play, but none quite like "Savage/Love."
This nonlinear collection of 19 poems that playwright/actor Sam Shepard and playwright/director Joseph Chaikin crafted together during a few short weeks 35 years ago couldn't be much more removed from theatrical convention. All the more reason, of course, for Single Carrot Theatre to take a crack at it.
To launch its 10th season of spicing Baltimore's cultural life with beyond-the-mainstream fare, Single Carrot offers a remarkably fluid, involving production of "Savage/Love."
In the space of about 70 brisk-moving minutes, a well-knit cast of six directed by Jen Spieler offers a variety of monologues, dialogues, stand-and-deliver recitations and eventful acted-out scenes.
The net effect is the tracing of human relationships — from wishful thinking ("I've changed my walk for you, I've even changed my talk for you. ... I hope we'll find each other soon") on into the risky stage of getting to know someone ("You played me your favorite music; I couldn't hear the music in it").
Crowing, doubting, bluffing and regretting get a nod as poem follows poem. There may be more gloom than bloom when all is said and done, but this isn't so much a wary look at love as an all-too-experienced one.
The Single Carrot staging builds momentum effectively. After one round through the material, everyone essentially starts over, finding different nuances and implications, new and often rawer emotions, in the verses.
One of the reprised poems becomes a glimpse of a tenuous same-sex relationship the second time around, for example (that the characters are tethered together adds an extra dimension). Another text, with a stammered line about "something [that] won't come out," prompts a droll visual joke when revisited.
All of this could easily turn precious or arch — and, in a couple of spots, almost does. But the overall concept works smoothly, animating and re-animating the poetry in telling ways.
There are dynamic, distinctive performances from Genevieve de Mahy, Paul Diem, Kellie Mecleary, Dustin C.T. Morris, Lauren Saunders and Matthew Shea (Saunders and Shea prove particularly adept at portraying tongue-tied and/or buttoned-up characters).
The cast's physical interaction rings as true as the articulation of the words. Emotional flare-ups (the "savage" parts, you could say) are handled with considerable power.
The actors, clad in casual linen costumes (Jessica Rassp), clamber easily all over Edward Victor's sprawling, wry jumble of a set. Sensitive lighting (Ryan Johnson) and telling sound design (Meghan Stanton) enhance the experience.
At its heart, "Savage/Love" is about need. The poem titled "Beggar" says it all:
Could you give me a small part of yourself I'm only asking for the tiniest part Just enough to get me from here to there
The imaginative Single Carrot production makes that hunger awfully palpable.