It is perhaps not surprising if Healthy Holly has hangups.
The vegetable-eating heroine of former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” children’s book series has been through a lot.
Her name has been linked with a scandal that sent Holly’s author to prison for three years on tax evasion and conspiracy charges after she failed to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in book deals. (Former President Donald Trump declined a request to commute her sentence.) The series was mocked for its grammatical errors and uninspired storytelling. Hundreds of copies were dumped unceremoniously and under cover of darkness outside a local charity.
And what’s worse, according to the Single Carrot Theatre’s new production of “Healthy Holly’s Hidden Hideaway,” the pig-tailed urchin received not a single clam of the money funneled to the disgraced former mayor in the form of book sales.
Who could blame even a fictitious character for going bananas?
That’s the premise behind the hour-long production conducted entirely over audience members’ mobile phones and in the privacy of their own homes.
“We were trying to figure out how to tell a story in an interesting way since we were maybe all going to be in our houses this winter,” said Emily Cory, Single Carrot’s executive director. “We thought it would be fun to do an interactive, choose-your-own adventure story that is populated by nefarious Baltimore characters while the audience explores their hometown.”
The show begins when ticket-buyers call a phone number emailed to them a few hours before performance time.
They find a mash-up of two political hot potatoes from Pugh’s administration: the self-dealing book sales, and the then-mayor’s decision in 2017 to remove four Confederate statues from their plinths in the middle of the night and store them in an undisclosed location.
Playwrights April Amara and Agyeiwaa Asante have created six characters who have their own reasons to track down the money and statues. Five are imaginary: a Girl Scout troop leader; a pretentious artist; an entitled private school mom; a nutritionist who provided dietary expertise for Pugh’s book series; and a fitness center guru named Holly Hathaway. The sixth is modeled on a real-life person, described in the script as “a former governor, Celtic rock god and almost President.”
We’ll let you figure out who that is. Consider it your first quiz.
“The characters are all trying to get back investment money they’ve lost,” Cory said. “They suspect that the money is hidden in the same place as the monuments.”
The plot sends the Celtic rock god and the rest racing around such iconic Baltimore landmarks as the Natty Boh Tower, Camden Yards and Druid Hill Park. At intervals, listeners press a key on their phones to determine which characters advance, and which fall behind. They take multiple-choice quizzes about obscure but fascinating facts from Baltimore history.
Audience members also can opt to receive text messages that pose philosophical questions related to the show, such as: “How are you complicit in corrupt systems of greed? Be honest with me.”
Because the production has a game show vibe, it’s more fun if experienced with other peas in your pod, and there’s no limit on the number of people who can listen to a single phone call. One person takes notes, a second conducts research, a third decides which options to pursue and so on.
(Pro tip #1: The more wrong answers you choose deliberately or not, the more you’ll learn about Baltimore history.)
The production mostly lives up to its billing as, in Cory’s words: “a very silly, hokey mystery that we thought would be a good antidote for the darkness in the world right now.”
Despite its charming premise, “Healthy Holly’s Hidden Hideaway” has hiccups:
A lot of information comes at listeners very quickly, and we have only our ears to decipher it. Too often, we didn’t have time to absorb what we’d just heard before the plot had galloped past. A device to slow down the pace — musical interludes? a pause button? — would have been a big help.
In addition, the special effects were mostly well-done — except when they drowned out the dialogue. This was particularly frustrating during a crucial scene late in the show that takes place underwater.
(Pro tip #2: Viewers can listen to the show as many times as they want over a three-day period. On my second listen, I picked up several plot twists that initially eluded me — though not, unfortunately, developments from the shark tank scene.)
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The one genuinely jarring moment occurs early in the show, when a character makes a joke that’s offensive to Native Americans. My companions and I looked at one another aghast. An objection seemed in order, but there was no one to complain to.
Later, Cory said, the slur uttered by an entitled prep school mom, “is meant to highlight the character’s ignorance, a white woman who thinks she’s being PC [politically correct] when she’s being outright racist.”
But an insult packaged as a joke is the very definition of microaggression. Because the other characters allow the remark to pass unchallenged, it could potentially result in a regrettable misunderstanding of who meant the derogatory jest — Single Carrot Theatre or a bigoted and imaginary character.