This has not been a banner year for most inhabitants of Earth, and the idea of blasting off and relocating to another planet grows more appealing each hurricane-pummeled, over-populated, heat-index-rising, tyrant-governed day.
That sentiment could not be more true for the Baltimore Rock Opera Society, as well as the space-bound heroes of BROS' latest production, "The Terrible Secret of Lunastus," a remount of a rock opera originally staged in 2011. The remount is the company's first full production in almost a year after their headquarters at the Bell Foundry was abruptly shuttered in December, pushing the show's planned spring run to the fall. In January, thousands of dollars worth of tools were stolen from the BROS workshop, and their rented practice space at Studio 14 in West Baltimore was temporarily closed—again, for safety violations.
The BROS needed a minute to regroup—and raise $75,000. The mission: To find a new home where the company can create and perform its shows without fear of eviction, "to build a palace that can bring rock 'n' roll to Baltimore for 7,000 years," according to the BROS' Crowdrise page. The fundraising campaign recently hit the $50,000 mark, and they have six weeks to raise the remaining $25,000, says BROS Managing Director Shannon Hadley.
"Which is cool, it's fine," she says nervously in the cramped BROS office on the first floor of the Bell Foundry. "Whatever, man."
The company returned to the first floor of the Bell Foundry in February after bringing their space up to code, but their lease ends this December. The three-story building has been on the market for $1 million since April, so it's still unclear to the company if they will be able to return to the Bell next year should their ongoing "forever home" hunt require more time.
In the meantime, the company has been throwing its notorious parties and working on the action-comedy "Lunastus," which opens this week at Zion Lutheran Church.
Written and directed by BROS member Chuck Green, the story centers around a group of Earthlings and their robot on a space mission to find a new planet to colonize after discovering that the moon has fallen out of orbit and is heading toward Earth. The team succeeds in finding a planet suitable for human life, but that planet, Lunastus, is already populated by an alien race called Abzug, and they know a shocking truth about Earth unknown to humans.
"It's Chuck's love letter to Star Trek," Hadley says.
Audiences might remember the story from the show's original run years ago as part of a double feature staged at the Autograph Playhouse along with "Amphion," which received a remount in the summer of 2016. At the time of the original double feature in 2011, BROS was in the process of fixing up the previously abandoned theater and building an entirely new multi-level stage.
"We never felt like the double feature got that level of care and consideration that every other show has gotten because we were also rehabbing the theater at the exact same time," Hadley says.
This level of ambition is totally in line with the maximalist, go-big-or-go-home philosophy and aesthetic of BROS, but even for them it was too much.
"We did 'Amphion,' intermission, 'Lunastus,' all in the same night," says Green. "Completely different staging, sets, characters, actors—everything was different. It was one of the dumbest things we've ever made ourselves do."
For the audience, it meant sitting through about four hours of theater—though BROS' shows are typically as much parties as they are plays.
"Everybody was super drunk by 'Lunastus,' so they really loved it," Hadley says. "Now we're gonna bring it back and people are gonna watch it when they're sober."
"Oh no!" Green says, laughing. "What are they gonna think?"
But what the show may lack in the audience's intoxication level BROS intends to make up for and then some in quality. This time around, "Lunastus" stands alone and will benefit from considerably more time and attention.
"The original, story-wise, had plot holes as big as a planet," says Green. "We did a bunch of rewrites so the story is a lot smoother, makes a lot more sense, and feels more like you can actually suspend your disbelief a little better."
The new production will also feature more polished sets, costumes, and props, plus two additional songs and new instrumentals to supplement the original score. The cast of 10 (not including the dance ensemble and live band) will spotlight new faces as well, though three actors are reprising their roles and another from the show's original run will perform in a new role.
"Lunastus" is the result of the work of over 100 artists and volunteers. On a visit to the Bell Foundry two weeks before opening night, several volunteers are buzzing around the workshop, consulting with Green and Hadley as they work on set pieces, props, and signage to help transform Zion into a sci-fi theater.
The first floor of the Bell Foundry in effect doubles as a workshop and BROS museum: Covering every surface including the ceiling and walls are paraphernalia of rock operas past—monsters, masks, weapons, elaborately embellished guitars that might as well have been played by Prince, plus the wall of beer steins.
Over by the costumes department, Green models a piece of one of the costumes for Lunastus' plant life—bright red, tree-like beings that bear fruit, Hadley says, and communicate through music and dance. The musical numbers and score for "Lunastus" are primarily inspired by the likes of David Bowie, Queen, Meat Loaf, and Heart, but different genres find their way into the show. These tree guys, for example, perform traditional hip-hop dance routines.
Rifling through the costume rack and taking out the bodysuits that will act as the blue-green skin of the Abzug, Hadley notes that the aliens will also have hair pieces made out of alpaca fur.
"Which we actually got to harvest," she adds. "We actually got to go to a farm and learn about wool and shave them."
Soon, the company will start packing everything up and moving the sets, props, and costumes into the church. Since everything has to fit through standard doors, the set builders made sure the enormous, illuminating rock faces that form Lunastus (and rotate to reveal the spaceship interior) currently awaiting departure in the Bell Foundry can fold flat. Near the sets stands the rig for what will soon be a towering, one-eyed monster. Green demonstrates the puppet's motion using a foot-tall model.
"As you pull it around the weight of the eye will always make sure that it's always pointing down and it'll always have that swing to it, so it'll always look weird and creepy," Hadley says, adding that she sees BROS' near future as "the year of the puppet."
After "Lunastus," the BROS team will not rest. Despite the company's still-uncertain future, they intend to throw more costume parties—most likely for Halloween and New Year's Eve, Hadley says. And then there's next year's rock operas, which in February will include a collaboration with Arena Players (the country's oldest continuously operating African-American theater company) on a double bill bringing back the BROS productions "Determination of Azimuth," about NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson (most recently of "Hidden Figures" fame) and "The Battle of Blue Apple Crossing," about bluesman Robert Johnson. Also in the works is a brand-new, as-yet-untitled rock opera, which Hadley describes as "Gremlins-esque—very VHS '80s, early '90s kind of heyday, spooky-goopy monster movie."
As the city's art scene seems to be facing one disappearing act after another, BROS clings to dear life. And, it seems, they might make it out of purgatory bigger and louder than before.
"The Terrible Secret of Lunastus" runs from Sept. 15-Oct. 8 at Zion Lutheran Church. For more information, visit baltimorerockopera.org.