In 1995, a worker at a recently closed New York state mental institution discovered what became known as the Willard Suitcases – more than 400 suitcases, still packed with the belongings of former patients, dating back to 1910. These suitcases became the inspiration for Single Carrot Theatre’s latest ensemble-created work, “Something Like Jazz Music.”
Instead of a mental hospital, however, the action takes place in a Baltimore shipping warehouse after a mysterious, undocumented container shows up. When it’s opened, raucous jazz pours out.
The workers remove the contents – luggage, steamer trunks, a dresser. As they try on a hat or a piece of clothing, they’re transported back – at times with a physical jolt – to 1920s Baltimore. There, they find themselves transformed into everyone from an African-American jazz musician to a Russian Jewish doctor to a Ku Klux Klansman.
The warehouse employees’ confusion, awareness or total absorption varies. In an early scene, actor Paul Diem’s modern character is mystified to have suddenly become a 1920s cop. Meanwhile, Nancy Linden’s warehouse manager now fully embodies a fun-loving flapper.
To further complicate matters, the warehouse personnel frequently morph into more than one character. In one case, Paul Diem vies for a different part – that of a tough jazz club owner named Wallace. It’s a part that has already been inhabited by two other actors, Samuel Dumarque Wright and Christopher Dews.
The modern characters’ acknowledgement that they are playing roles is a metatheatrical strain that runs throughout the play. When a gun appears, Nancy Linden’s character comments: “It’s not supposed to be in this story!”
Along with these self-referential touches, there are a number of Single Carrot hallmarks: The smooth integration of music, lighting and projections; movement so fluid it borders on choreography; and a tone that mixes playfulness with seriousness.
But the tight ensemble work is Single Carrot’s strongest hallmark. It applies not only to the six-member cast, but also to the way the show was created. A team of 11 devised the work. Then Genevieve de Mahy created a script and Alix Fenhagen and Steven Krigel co-directed the production.
Structurally, the show would benefit from a little more shaping. It starts with the workers in the warehouse doing regimented moves that represent warehouse tasks. It ends with Christopher Dews performing a disturbing kind of puppet show with a minstrel mask and a Ku Klux Klan hood – items found in one of the suitcases. The gifted Dews then recites Langston Hughes’ “Dream Variations.”
This character has learned something from his time travel. But it’s difficult to tell if his co-workers have. It would be eye-opening to see if the employees’ initial regimentation has changed at the end.
The title, “Something Like Jazz Music,” comes from a bit of dialogue. The words “something like” are critical. Even if we could travel back in time, we wouldn’t get a complete, unvarnished portrait.
Theater, however, can improve on that. “Something Like Jazz Music” makes strides. It’s packed with striking inventions -- some, no doubt, the result of jazz-like improvisation. But at this point, they don’t quite add up to a satisfying composition.
“Something Like Jazz Music” continues at Single Carrot Theatre through March 27th.