Annex Theater draws noir mystery out of Baltimore in "The Shattering Frame"

Baltimore's unique—and often apartheid-like—hodgepodge of socio-economic geography means you'd be hard-pressed to avoid the presence of poverty and neglect even blocks away from a "well-to-do" neighborhood. Still, for many who see the dilapidated rowhomes and homeless sleeping on the sidewalk, it's all too easy to just look away.

Turning a blind eye is routine for residents of the North Sector in the fictional city of "The Shattering Frame: A Bridgette Miakowski Mystery," a new, original noir at Annex Theater written and directed by company member Trevor Wilhelms. Just southwest of the prosperous neighborhood, two orphaned sisters live on their own with little means, the older (played by Mika J. Nakano) supporting the younger until the older suddenly vanishes. The younger, known only to us as the Kid, is our Bogartian narrator—her bio: "I was born. I wasn't good at it." With layers of idealism and ruggedness, grown-up actor Liz Christmas skillfully conjures a child who acts like an adult.

Diverging from standard private eye noir wherein the narrator is the PI, the Kid is not our detective—only aspiring. That would be the title character, a retired PI known for recovering missing children played cool and slick by Autumn Breaud. The Kid begs Miakowski to help find her sister, and she resists at first; those days are over for her. But when Sheriff Tiger Brown (Scott Burke) says the police are too busy protecting the North Sector to help a Southwest Sector girl, leaving the Kid with nowhere else to go, Miakowski takes on the job.

Typical of Annex productions, the design team behind "Shattering Frame" pulls off a lot with fairly little. Taking the a distinctive aesthetic cue from classic noir, lighting designer David Crandall uses moving spotlights manipulated by the ensemble cast to carve the city from light and shadow and almost nothing more (Doug Johnson's minimal set includes thick vertical strips of subdued color suggest a faint cityscape on the walls, but that's about it). This works beautifully throughout but particularly when Miakowski and the Kid drive from lead to dead end to another lead. Charging the script's dramatic pauses, lights crawl over the actors' faces to the effect of passing street lights, peppered with subtle sound effects from the two-piece live band, which provides the eerie tunes (composed and performed by Martin Kasey with Rick Gerriets on drums) that you'd expect from mystery cinema throughout.

As the duo navigates the city seeking answers, it becomes clear that everyone who fails to recognize the city's dramatic inequality is culpable in sustaining it—anything resembling truth is dismissed as "hogwash." As the kid says, "No one wanted to admit that everybody was hiding something." But there is a villain here at the center of the Southwest Sector's woes: The Mayor (Jacob Zabawa), a Jim Carrey as The Mask-esque nut with oversized patent leather lapels and a penchant for talking with his hips. He's an extreme character vaguely reminiscent of some of Wilhelm's own often memorable roles with Annex (he was something else in "Stupid Ghost" earlier this season). With the sweeping voice of a revival preacher, the Mayor ballyhoos to his followers his "pillars of society": "transparency, access, and fun."

Let's start with that last one. "Fun" is the Mayor's tool for maintaining his constituents' tunnel vision; keep them distracted and no one will stir up trouble. That doesn't work for the Kid and Miakowski, or the Belvedere twins (Dave Iden and Nina Kearin), the brainy, manic techies/aspiring comedians who come to our heroes' aid. But the Mayor's promise of "the party of the year" (insert flashes of Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's swanky $54,437 send-off soiree paid for by the former Baltimore mayor's political fundraising committee) keeps the rest of his apparently dingdong constituency happy as crime and poverty rages down south. The Mayor's mission above all else is maintaining a "vi-i-i-i-brant feeling!" to hold onto his power.

Vibrancy is not the only buzzword Wilhelms seems to have borrowed from Baltimore's leaders. The Mayor throws around the other two tenets of his so-called ideal city—transparency and access—freely and loosely with no follow through (sound familiar?). Unless you count as follow through, in this case, the "Mayor's Manners Mission," a youth program where kids like our Kid from less privileged parts of the city go to learn career skills like botany, food preparation, and engineering; which sounds fine and well except—you guessed it—the program is not what it seems. But the Mission offers tours, so I guess there's your transparency.

"The Shattering Frame" is not a mirror reflection of the city where it was created; its characters are certainly more extreme and the plight of the people and its causes are less nuanced. For one thing, economic and social class has no relation to race here (most of the actors are white). The residents of the North Sector are under the spell of one slimy dude, the Mayor—who doesn't fool the audience in his intentions for a second—not necessarily a legacy of widespread inequality or an intricate network of corruption. The Mayor's followers are laughably dim-witted in their blind allegiance; it's easy for anyone in the audience to think "I am not like them." Though this city bears resemblances to our own, there is no challenge to consider the limitations, distractions, and distortions of our own frame of mind. The show feels more like a loose satire of our world, and that in itself is vaguely satisfying.

But Wilhelms touches on a stinging truth when the frame, so to speak, finally shatters: The Mayor's wrongdoings and the severity of the Southwest Sector kids' troubles are made clear to the citizens. There is something of a happy ending for our heroes. The city has the opportunity to start anew. But business goes on as usual, "same old scheme in brand new packaging," to quote the Kid. The show ends before the implications of that cycle are made clear; we're left to chew on it.

"The Shattering Frame: A Bridgette Miakowski Mystery" runs Thursdays through Sundays till April 16. For more information, visit baltimoreannextheater.org.

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