Theater Review: Truepenny Projects’ ‘Squidsbury’ at the Mercury Theater

Maria Ortiz-Marquez as Tina and Jess Rassp as Tina’s Tentacle. Photo by Dave Iden.

While the souls of the dead still live in my mind
As I live through all the years that they left me behind
I’ll stay on the shore but always look out to sea
I remember the dead and they think of me
For our souls in the ocean together will be

-from “Bones in the Ocean” by The Longest Johns

Can we go home? Is it possible to restore what has been lost in a confined and manipulative existence? Can we celebrate our own “otherness”, even if we are persecuted for it? Baltimore playwright Chad Short tackles these questions in “Squidsbury,” a play he calls “a testament to serious, adaptable, hard-working matriarchs.” Produced and directed by Tessara Morgan for Truepenny Projects, the show appears at the Mercury Theater in Baltimore through the end of July.

There is wonderful and inspiring work in this play from the cast and production crew.

Tina is a young woman with a secret. It weighs heavily on him. In conversation with her best friend, Teensy, she reveals a startling truth: Tina is a squid. “Squid” here is neither an acronym nor something to look up in the urban dictionary. Tina is, in fact, a true marine cephalopod who is confined under the disguise of a “human costume”. Occasionally, one or more of its tentacles will come out from under a table or behind a couch. Most of the time, Tina does a good job of keeping it all together. She better, because her boyfriend Tim has strict control over her and never allows her to take off the costume. No one can know!

Tina’s charade continues, even as friends Tammy and Todd come to visit. They have their own news, consisting of an exciting invitation for the quartet to travel together. Tina is overjoyed, while Tim is busy tending to an extremely upset stomach. Negotiations after the party lead to a fierce feud. Tina enlists Teensy’s help, and the two hatch a plot. “You’re pure evil,” Tina tells Teensy. “You’re the devil,” Teensy replies, “I’m just your lawyer.” Ultimately, Tina must make a choice that will change her life.

Short’s wackadoodle plot is served up by producer/director Tessara Morgan as intense as it is poignant and real. Morgan’s set, aside from Tina and the humans, includes puppeteers and a pair of “Ticket Takers” who form the connective tissue between scenes. O’Malley Steuerman and Caitlin Weaver play these characters, dressed in black and trapped by what appear to be plastic six-pack rings. Onstage, the duo act as TV reporters and other crucial entities – often above the action (literally) – and hum a sea shanty as they go.

Tammy (J Purnell Hargrove) and Todd (Bobby Henneberg) are positively electric. These characters are the living answer to the question, “What if we took the goofy neighbor couple from an old sitcom and force-fed them three cases of Jolt Cola each?” Shana Herndon plays Teensy very well according to the book, as a sassy best friend. Ultimately, Teensy displays some depth, and it rings so, so true. Dorian Elie plays the controlling boyfriend, Tim. Elie makes him both pathetically weak and irredeemably toxic, a very fine feat. Maria Ortiz-Marquez, as Tina, takes the audience on a torturous journey. Her character changes over the course of the play, and Ortiz-Marquez delivers a subtle intensity in the opening scenes that feels so natural it’s only surprising in hindsight. Tina is the eye of the storm in times like these, but when her stakes are raised, she digs deep and finds the strength to grab her agency with both (and more) hands. There’s some lovely movement work done by Isaiah Mason Harvey and Jess Rassp, the puppeteers who form Tina’s tentacles. Their choreography is hypnotic and, dare we say, fluid. David Brasington also checks in, controlling a large, elaborate squid puppet.

There is wonderful and inspiring work in this play from the cast and production crew. Morgan, the producer/director, also designed the puppets. They are whimsical and beautiful. Amelia Karojic’s incredible costume and makeup work is a highlight of the show, displaying a rich imagination on a shoestring budget. The sound is from the playwright. Luke Farley’s set consists of a basic interior – until he doesn’t – and, similarly, Eric Nightengale’s lighting saves the best for last. There’s an obvious and appreciated care in the work of intimacy consultant Behar Baharloo and fight choreographer Gerrad Taylor. Stage manager Jordan Cahoon somehow manages to pull off intricate signals in what has to be the warmest stand in town.

Truepenny Projects is a collective from Wisconsin, led by co-artistic directors Morgan and Farley. They have a planned season which consists of a shadow puppet play and two gallery shows. If “Squidsbury” is any indication of the band’s ambition and reach, hopefully they’ll put more time and effort into acting. It should be noted here that the Mercury is a smaller venue and seating for this production is limited to less than 30 seats. Advance purchase of tickets is highly recommended.

Duration: 1h50 with an intermission.

Warnings: Profanity, strobe lighting.

“Squidsbury” runs through July 31, 2022 at the Mercury Theater, 1823 N. Charles Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. Tickets are available for purchase online. Customers must provide proof of vaccination and are required to remain masked.

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