In 1999, the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays was in its 24th season. Beginning to feel creative pressure from the relative upstart Contemporary American Theater Festival, Humana’s producers decided to try a few gimmicks. They presented “t-shirt plays,” a “car play,” and a series of “telephone plays.” For the last, patrons entered one of several telephone booths in the venue lobby, picked up the receiver, and listened to a three-minute play unfold. The works had been written specifically for the medium, and presented by playing an audio recording made earlier.
In 2020, Baltimore’s nomadic Single Carrot Theatre — like all companies during COVID — sought novel solutions to the challenge of presenting plays safely, rather than resorting to dormancy for the duration of the crisis. Their most recent effort is “Healthy Holly’s Hidden Hideaway,” a roughly one-hour telephone play by Agyeiwaa Asante and April Amara. Its alliterative title is a reference to the series of children’s books, self-published by former Baltimore mayor, Catherine Pugh, as part of a fraud scheme which ended her political career. In this play, Pugh’s Holly character (voiced by Jessica Garrett) is joined by former mayor and governor Martin O’Malley (Matthew Shea) and a motley band of adventurers in a city-wide search for treasure. This ensemble of Dominic Gladden, Paul Diem, Laura Malkus, Ama Brown, and Zipporah Brown find themselves confronted by a series of trivia challenges whose correct answers promise to lead the group and the audience to eventual resolution.
…an entertaining mixture of local fun facts and button-pressing.
By seeking to achieve interactivity for the audience, the play overcomes a number of technical limitations. There are obviously no scenic, lighting, or costume designs, and even audio mixing and editing are constrained by the poor quality of a typical phone connection. Sound designer C. Swan-Streepy and composer Peter Dayton do good work within these constraints, often (though not always) careful to avoid muddying the available bandwidth with cacophany.
The piece is directed by ArtsCentric’s artistic director Kevin S. McAllister. Recently named Baltimore’s Theater Company of the Decade by another publication, ArtsCentric is coincidentally housed in Single Carrot’s former location on Howard Street. That’s “Smalltimore.” And “Healthy Holly”‘ is a playground of Smalltimore tidbits. Through a format built around the ubiquitous nuisance of computerized phone-menus, the audience is sent scavenging through a museum, a cookie factory, and a library while solving multiple-choice questions through either wild guesses or Googling. Correct answers allow the audience to move forward. Incorrect answers result in a loop which can’t be escaped until the right reply is given. Imagine trying to get a human being on the phone at a large corporation or government agency — that is more or less the effect, if not the intention.
Running Time: One hour
Advisory: The use of profanity
Single tickets for at-home access to “Healthy Holly’s Hidden Hideaway” are available through February 15th at the Single Carrot website.