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Learning to Love the Bomb

Office Ladies offers profound—and profoundly funny— meditation on water, ants, and the atomic bomb

Photo: RLQuick, License: N/A

RLQuick

Acme Corporation’s Office Ladies by Lola B. Pierson


Office Ladies

Written and directed by Lola B. Pierson

Music by Alex Scally and Stephen Strohmeier

through Dec. 16 at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church

As the year ends, Baltimore’s theater scene is looking toward a bright future. We have big names (and big talents) like Kwame Kwei-Armah established in town, Everyman Theatre is moving to its new west side home, and Single Carrot will temporarily take its place on Charles Street before moving to Remington. But perhaps the best sign for the future of Baltimore theater is a surge of talented playwrights. Alex Hacker’s script for This Bird’s Flown displayed originality and strength. And now, Lola B. Pierson’s Office Ladies, staged by the relatively new Acme Corporation, marks some of the best writing done in the city, in any medium, this year.

There is not much of a plot to speak of, but that doesn’t really matter, because the play creates a world rather than a story in the same way that, say, Beckett does (though the play is otherwise not at all reminiscent of the playfully glum Irishman).

Office Ladies doesn’t consist of dialogue so much as it does a series of competing monologues: First, between Self (Jenna Rossman) and the recorded voice of her father (W. Michel Pierson), and then between the five titular office ladies.

Self enters the darkened theater at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church with a flashlight. She sets up a slide projector that flashes through text reminiscent of Chris Marker’s La Jetée (the music amplifies this echo of Marker, but more on that later). “I do not know what it was like before the atomic bomb,” the text reads. “But I imagine it sounded like this (blank slide).”

“This play is about the atomic bomb,” the father’s voice says a few moments later.

“No, it isn’t,” Self responds. “This play is about the thing you cannot come back from.” Self reflects on the difficulty of making a play about the bomb and her relationship with her father—Rossman brings the perfect blend of uncomfortable self-awareness to her role—and the Father’s voice interrupts her, talking about the history of the development and deployment of the bomb.

Then Self disappears, though she periodically comes back, and the office ladies begin to speak, perched at their desks with ’50s-style dress and desk decor, so that they look as if they were perhaps frozen the moment the bomb fell, trapped outwardly in a strange, floating world of a suspended office space, and inwardly in the obsession that defines them at work. Foumi (Sophie Hinderberger) is hilariously obsessed with ants— “If you see something walking around that looks like me,” she says, “make sure it doesn’t have an exoskeleton”; Marisabel (Leah Englund) with water; Rosie (Deidre McAllister) with holidays; Blanche (Alexandra Goldstein) with numbers; and Midori (a standout Caitlin Weaver) with time.

At first, the obsessions enter the conversation innocently—Marisabel talking about a PBS show she saw about water coolers in the workplace—but they come to increasingly define the characters. The absurd riffs are punctuated by interruptions and the mechanical performance of mundane office tasks, and the effect is genuinely funny without being silly or cute. But eventually, each theme takes on an ominous tone, especially in light of the constant reminders of nuclear weapons and the possibility that the world has already ended.

I don’t tend to trust Pirandello-ish meta-plays about writing plays (navel-gazing) or competing monologues (quirk defines character; no one needs to interact). But Pierson manages to pull both off with aplomb: The script is like a musical score, each woman a different instrument, adding to the overall melody and surrounding harmonics.

However well-written, this is not one of those extraordinarily literary plays that may be as good to read as to see (think Chekhov and O’Neill). In fact, it comes closer to Wagner’s desire for a total art that engages all of the senses. Part of this is due to the excellent music. Alex Scally (of Beach House) and Stephen Strohmeier composed and perform a powerful score. The already-mentioned riff that accompanies the introductory slideshow recurs (with some variation) throughout the production. It shares something with the Twin Peaks theme song and manages to elicit far more emotion than its few surfy guitar riffs would seem to warrant. Each of the office ladies also has a private moment dancing at her desk alone, with perfectly cheesy tunes that add considerably to the play’s comedy. (With this work as evidence, Scally might just follow fellow local indie-darling Dan Deacon, into scoring big-time movies).

And then there is “ANTS!” (by Pierson and Deidre McAllister), which incorporates riffs from previous dialogue into a song-and-dance number—the women are dressed like ants—about an ant colony and what it does when a member inhales a fungal spore that will eventually explode from its brain like a beautiful flower. The routine is absurd and hilarious and yet, it deals seriously with the role of the individual in society—especially in the face of an existentially threatening but inexplicably beautiful idea like the bomb.

This is only part of Office Ladies’ overwhelming charm. It is also one of the most disorientingly beautiful plays you are likely to see. Acme Corporation has made a spectacular use of the space in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Station North. The bi-leveled circular room is outfitted with five desks—one for each of the women—but three of them are perched up above, hanging off the railing of the second floor, and all of them are set at an impossible and disorienting angle, so that the audience can see the entire desk and its contents. Each desk is outfitted with objects associated with the characters’ obsession—Midori’s has a number of clocks, and Rosie’s is covered by a calendar and various holiday-themed shaky globes. The arrangement of the desks is so evocative that they could, in fact, almost stand alone as an art show. But each of the beautiful aspects of Office Ladies—the script, the set, the music, the superb acting—add up to create something more profound and more entertaining than any individual element could do alone: They fulfil the need to laugh in the face of dread, to create beauty in the face of destruction.

There are a few small problems—when Rosie wonders whether they get off for Martin Luther King Jr. Day and President’s Day, it takes the play out of the suspended world in which it has existed and places the retro-looking office ladies in the period after King’s birthday—but they are hardly worth mentioning in the face of Acme Corporation’s overwhelming achievement.

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