The season of summer blockbusters is upon us. Movie theaters everywhere are filled with big stories, employing big casts, and consuming big budgets. It’s enough to give one a sense of screen fatigue. Luckily, epic tales of heroism can also be told live and in person. Baltimore’s Truepenny Projects is presenting an out-of-this-world example this month, at The Voxel.
Playwright Tatiana Nya Ford is a mythical world-builder. Her ten-minute plays are well known to fans of The Variations Project, for which she penned ‘Samson’ for “Variations on Sacrifice” and ‘The Lies that I Used to Do’ for “Variations on Magic.” “Lyra and the Ferocious Beast” is Ford’s first produced full-length play (commissioned by Truepenny), and it adopts a similar posture of enormity of scale and purpose. It isn’t carried by a cast of thousands—seven actors play six characters here—but its sense of grandeur and heroic conquest are worthy of comparison to Hollywood’s best.
…its sense of grandeur and heroic conquest are worthy of comparison to Hollywood’s best.
Lyra (Mecca ‘Meccamorphosis’ Verdell) is an intergalactic traveler on a scientific mission to the planet Minerva. There she studies flora and fauna with the able assistance of her rocket android, Hattie (Caitlin Weaver). Her pet is a birdlike creature named Yucca (puppeteers Francesco Leandri and Alex Mungo). Together this group is attacked and imprisoned by the evil Admiral Atlas (David Brasington) and his henchman, Caelum (Isaiah Mason Harvey). Atlas is after the fabled Amaranthine Gemstone, which will grant him extraordinary power. To get it, he must manipulate Yucca’s breeding ritual and fend off Lyra’s attempts at rescue. By the second act, a Keeper of the Cosmos (J Purnell Hargrove) joins the fray, dishing out wisdom and justice. On the whole, the plot feels like a sci-fi Kurosawa adaptation, with lots of epic battles (balletic fight choreography is by Gerrad Alex Taylor) and wowie-zowie visuals. Scenery is by Luke Farley who imagines Minerva as a sort of reedy, magical wetland, with billowy shower curtains for clouds. Eric Nightengale’s lighting and Mark Navarro’s sound take full advantage of The Voxel’s excellent equipment inventory (the building is owned by Figure 53, who use the performance space as a laboratory for their well-known theatrical software product, QLab).
Projection designer Chris Uehlinger, whose work often explodes with color and movement, is very restrained in this production. His small, handwritten intertitles evoke cinematic sense memory from the silent era. These are not the only projected images in the piece. Performers make use of a massive white scrim—as well as the sleeves of the Cosmos Keeper’s costume—for shadow-puppetry and silhouette work. Speaking of costumes, Liz Dunlap’s designs are amazing. All of the looks are simple, yet fanciful, and feature the tallest footwear you’re likely to see on stage this year. Robot Hattie comes across as an upholstered, metallic chess piece, and bad guy Caelum is clad in blue Oompa Loompa pants. Bluest of all, though, is the tyrannical Atlas, with beard and ears colored in a practically neon shade. Madeline Baynard designed and built the puppet Yucca for two performers. The bird follows the blue theme, with rich plumage and a furry tail.
In the protagonist role of Lyra, Verdell is a heroic delight. She begins by tackling the exposition with straightforwardness, communicating by wrist radio with “Keepers of the Anomalies” on her home planet. Lyra’s flaws and virtues start to show as her relationships with other characters are introduced. Particularly poignant is the back and forth between Lyra and Hattie, an early-model robot. Hattie is staunchly dedicated to “best friend” programming, and the quarrels these characters endure are a great source of comic relief and ironic humanity. This piece is a perfect showcase for Weaver’s consistently excellent comic timing and emotional directness. Harvey, another veteran of The Variations Project, gives Caelum a richly satisfying moral ambiguity. Indentured into Atlas’ evil scheme, he struggles with his mission and his feelings until, finally, making the choice that must be made in a final bloodbath of Shakespearean scale. Brasington’s Atlas is a grinning, snickering heavy in the Scorsese tradition, who claims to be working on his violent temper while laying waste to everything and everyone in his way. Purnell delivers the Keeper of the Cosmos as the grooviest possible idea of a space angel. Her boots are impossibly tall (taller than Atlas’?), as is her Marge Simpson-esque golden turban.
Director Tessara Morgan has done a great job of bringing Ford’s fantasy world to life by defining clear parameters for its design elements. Within this world, she has also executed a brilliant, integrated vision for the characters and plot. All of this is doubtless made easier by having an excellent script and highly talented artists. In lesser hands than Morgan’s, a story like this one might devolve into camp or be crushed under its own weight. “Lyra” is quite long, but worthy of the journey (and The Voxel’s chairs are comfy).
Running time: Two hours and 13 minutes with one intermission.
Advisories: Profanity and strobe effects.
“Lyra and the Ferocious Beast” runs through August 27, 2023 at The Voxel, 9 West 25th Street, Baltimore, MD 21218. Tickets are available online. Face masks are optional.