Seek summer south. Seek winter north. Seek autumn west. Seek spring east. Seek Minotaur at Annex Theater. Playing heavily into their season of Wondrous Strange, discovering identity through amazing adventure and twisted paths, this original stage work written and Directed by company member Douglas Johnson, this fully immersive experience follows down the darkened path of sensory-overload that the last few shows of the season have meandered. Powerfully evocative in its ability to disorient the senses through play of the aesthetic, and viscerally gripping when it comes to developing a sense of orientation both physically in the space and metaphorically within one’s own identity, Johnson’s work is the most striking play to take to the stage yet this season.
Minotaur is more than a play. It is a discovery; it is an experience that fully embraces the senses— visually, aurally, olfactorilly— a bit like a theme-park 4D show as filtered through the delectably devious lens that is The Annex Theater of Baltimore and their uniquely perceptive approach to theatre. Director and Playwright Douglas Johnson teams up with the company’s Managing Director Rick Gerriets, along with Samantha Bloom to fabricate a chimerical Set Design that best serves the labyrinth nature of the play. Constructing a physical labyrinth across a narrow strip of playing space so that seating can exist on all four sides of the stage-like runway is one challenge. Making it a believable expression of lost despair is another, both of which Johnson, Gerriets, and Bloom rise to with great ease. Draping shredded burlap across the ceiling further intensifies the notion that the walls are not walls but shades and shadows designed to torturously trap the victims of the maze.
Johnson’s work becomes not only a play about the balance of darkness— and all of the many veins of logic which that can entail— but a play set in the playfulness of darkness. Lighting Designer Trevor Wilhelms has the most arduous task of all when it comes to the design work of the production as the moments of darkness and light— and the ways in which they are juxtaposed together— are such crucial elements of the show’s success. Wilhelms masterfully creates atmospheric shifts, ripe with raging emotions of fear, uncertainty, ominous foreboding, with a simple fade of dawning of light. Eerie greens are used to highlight the demons of the mind, and the title character is never fully exposed beyond the overwhelming dark that creeps through most of the scenes. Wilhelms work, and the sensations of disorientation that it creates by extension, is astonishing and serves the play well.
Because of the darkness played with a heavy hand throughout, Soundscape Designers and the Musical Team— David Crandall, Rjyan Kidwell, Patrick McMinn, and Scott Burke— have their work drawn into focus. The entire opening scene occurs in almost pitch blackness, making every drip of the labyrinth, every echo of a footstep, every unearthly or undistinguishable sound shake through the space at an unsettlingly pervasive level. The Soundscape team is somewhat of a dream team as they hone in on the epitome of startling sounds— particularly in the scene near the show’s end, below with the baths— infusing each moment with an auditory tension that unsettles the audience and heightens the awareness of their overall experience.
Costume Designers Susan MacCorkle and Elizabeth Roskos deserve a great deal of praise, along with Illusionist Crafter Lucas Gerace, though most of their work remains unseen or witnessed through dim glimpses of the secretive shadows that trod treacherously throughout the performance. MacCorkle and Roskos bring forth a worldly grit to the couture of the show, which is only really witnessed in its entirety at the show’s curtain call. Their masterpiece is only witnessed in the final scene— the construction of the beast itself— but for fear of giving away one of the most magnificent elements of the performance, it too shall remain shrouded in mystery unless you venture to see the show. Watch carefully in the darkness, though, glimpses of costumes and magic, as well as magical costumes, will catch the eye if you know just where and how to look.
The olfactory infusion that Director Douglas Johnson brings into the work takes the theatrical experience to the next level. Frankincense serves as a cleansing scent when the voice of reason is encountered. And there is a delicious floral odor that is simultaneously beautiful and repugnantly laced with decay, like that of funeral flowers, which defines a profound moment in the production. Foul odors accompany foul creatures and all of these sensory techniques wend flawlessly into Johnson’s vision of disorienting the audience the way the labyrinth disorients its prisoners. There are moments, however, when scenes linger in light too long— mainly the sequence of vignettes between Sandra and Amy once a safety and security has been bonded between them— and this disrupts the dizzyingly delectable disaster of disorientation that Johnson and the design team have worked so very hard up to that point to achieve. These scenes aside, the show shuffles in chaos that is beautiful terrifying and beautiful, a remarkable masterpiece that stirs a curiously personal connection for each individual watching.
Johnson’s purest moment of fabrication among the golden threads of his play is the construction of John. While many take comic relief or a nervous titter at John (Trevor Wilhelms)’s expense, there is nothing so tragically beautiful and inspiringly innocent happening in this production outside of his existence. Wilhelms brings a convivial sense of naïveté to his portrayal, fully committed to the reality in which he has constructed both inside and outside of his mind. The play itself becomes focused on little moments of what one can witness and experience and the twisted Tim-Burton-esque Christmas tree that is painted in the water upon the table top during the exchange between Wilhelms’ character and that of Amy (Molly Margulies) is fascinating and captivates the attention because of its striking simplicity. These segment of the performance calls in the myth of Polyphemus, blinded by Nobody, and is one of the most brutally emotionally charged moments of the show.
Margulies, it may be purported, is the show’s protagonist. Undergoing a series of transformations as she identifies with what the maze makes of her character, there is something earnest about her portrayal as well. Possessed of a fire, though dim but unyielding, in her bell, Margulies hones in on the importance of truth and memory in her character’s existence. Paired often opposite of Adam (Rjyan Kidwell) their exchanges are that of mentor and student, imaginary friend and real person, captor and captive, all rolled into one messy oblivion of an existence. Noting the way Margulies rarely looks at Kidwell’s character director is another fascinating choice that draws forth her own personal connections to the situation in those moments.
With an ensemble of others—the bumbling Jean (V Lee) and Ronnie (Scott Burke) who bungle their way through the maze like scavenging sewer rats— and the Enforcer (Mason Ross) who has a gnarled southern accent (as coached by Dialect Consultant Jacob A. Budenz), the production bears all the earmarks of a true ensemble piece. Sandra (Madeleine Scott) and Harmon (Andrew Holter) become figments of Amy’s imagination, for although they appear to exist in reality, encountering her and each other and having moments that define deep-seeded universal injustices of life between them, it is difficult to say what is real and what is pretend inside this wondrously strange performance.
Douglas Johnson has created something frightfully beautiful, a contradicting beast in the title character of the Minotaur (Derek Vaughan Brown.) Without wishing to discuss this mystical being too fully, for fear of spoiling its majestic and haunting effects and presences, Vaughan Brown’s performance is impressive to say the least. From the moment the Minotaur is first encountered— by sound only— through to the show’s powerfully and emotionally visceral conclusion— there is no mistaking the dozens of layers that this creature is meant to represent. A stellar representation of Johnson’s creative mind, Minotaur, both the character and the play as a whole, is a must-see experience. Everyone is certain to take a different path of discovery and experience while absorbing its every dark and twisted whim.
Running Time: Approximately 110 minutes with no intermission