by Jason Crawford Samios-Uy
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Baltimore is certainly known for its quirkiness (some would say weirdness) and that’s exactly why I adore this city! There’s a little join called Maryland Art Place (MAP) down on West Saratoga Street that I had never heard of but am certainly glad I have now. At the moment, in the 14 Karat Cabaret, a space that was once a basement but is now charming and, yes, quirky performance space, MAP is presenting a brand new work entitled HOAX, by Annelise Montone in collaboration with Magician Brian M. Kehoe with Consulting Director Deirdre McAllister and this is a show not to be missed this summer!
I’ve had the opportunity to travel the world but every road has always led back to dear old Baltimore and though I was born and raised in this fine town, there are still nooks and crannies that I’ve yet to explore. MAP and the 14 Karat Cabaret was one of those nooks and I was delighted of my new discovery and I was honored to witness a piece of theatre that, on a regular evening, I may not have given a second thought because of the style. I’m glad I gave this a second thought and decided to attend. I would call HOAX part experimental theatre, part magic show, and part TED Talks but entirely entertaining and authentic. The writing is strong and the performances are powerful.
HOAX is about Maxwell Fink and Sarah Swanson (if that’s their real names), two con artists who have come together to pull back the veil on your everyday cons and to warn the audience. Maxwell, with his clever sleight of hand and smoke and mirrors wants to quit the con business and very much wants the audience to understand the art of confidence so we won’t be scammed again. Sarah, on the other hand, is a bit more apprehensive, but goes along with Maxwell out of pure loyalty, being the ever-reliable assistant.
Walking into the space, I knew I was in for an interesting and entertaining evening. The space has the feel of a black box theatre, with just about every surface painted black but it is decorated with mismatched chachkies and eclectic memorabilia from previous shows and presentations and has a very down-home feeling. At first, I felt out of place and didn’t know what to expect as I’m accustomed to actual theatres or theatre spaces with stages, but quickly became more at ease and comfortable because of the friendly, charming atmosphere. The joint even has a cash bar (water, wine, and lemonade), which is always fun!
As for the actual production, the stage is constructed in a corner of the space and part of the space is blocked off by simple drapery that is absolutely appropriate for this show. Scenic Design by Harley Winkler is absolutely spot on with gold drapery and rolling boxes that serve as storage and seating for the cast of two. The set and space in general gave me the feeling I was sitting in a side show attraction at a carnival in a by-gone era with a hint of creepiness but overpowering feeling of curiosity that pushed the hint of creepiness to the back of my mind. Lighting Design by Alec Lawson added to the curious, strange atmosphere with simple but brilliant lighting, using the lighting already in the space as well as small lamps at the edges of the stage, almost like foot lighting that shines an eerie up-lighting that adds value to the production.
The Sound Design of this production deserves a shout out, as well! For not having a live band, the music choices were practically perfect from the old songs, the carnival sounds, the calliope music, the canned laughter – everything! Everything fit like a glove and the cues were absolutely flawless and I’m assuming Stage Manger Stephy Miller has something to do with those cues and should be commended for her work!
The costumes for each character are very suitable and period, and don’t take away from the performances but add to the production as a whole. A checkered blazer and oxford shoes for Maxwell and a striking red dress for Sarah add that extra bit of authenticity to these characters.
Also adding major value to the production is something of which I am not a huge fan, usually, and that is the audience participation. Again, I’m not crazy about breaking that “fourth wall” whether I’m on stage or in the audience during a production. However, using audience participation worked perfectly with this production. Since it’s part magic show, of course, the audience has to be involved and that’s an aspect that made this production shine – the total emersion of the audience. We are right there with Maxwell and Sarah and they are talking to us, not at us.
Brian M. Kehoe takes on the role of Maxwell Fink, a con artist who is on the top of his game but wants to repent and is desperate to teach the audience how to spot and avoid a scam. Kehoe’s performance is brilliant and flawless from the moment he interrupts the audience having their drinks in the bar area until the very last lines of the show. According to his website, brianmkeho.com, he is a “magician/lecturing conjurer/actor” and he ain’t lyin’! He’s certainly every one of those things. He is natural and comfortable onstage and though he might have a small stature, he has a huge, confident presence that commands the stage. Throughout the entire show, as Maxwell, Kehoe is talking to his audience and interacting, giving a complete sense of inclusion. If reading directly from a script, he seems as though he’s just having a conversation with his audience and if going off of an outline, he doesn’t falter once. His interaction with the audience, when he’s asking for volunteers, is not pompous but, just like a con man, very friendly, and his volunteers want to cooperate. His emotion when talking about his need to redeem himself is poignant and authentic, making the audience feel for him and even root for him to find his redemption. Overall, Kehoe’s performance in HOAX was a joy to watch and I’m excited to see more from him.
The role of Sarah Swanson, the discontented but loyal (or so it seems) assistant/partner is taken on by author Annelise Montone and her performance is absolutely first-rate from her intense entrance, pretending to be Mary Toft, a woman in the early 1700s who claimed to give birth to rabbits or rabbit parts, anyway, to her snarky interactions with Kehoe as Maxwell, to her interaction with the audience. Not once did she lose character of the irate, somewhat fed-up Sarah Swanson, who is tolerating Maxwell Fink’s obsession with going legit but doesn’t necessarily want to repent herself and has accepted what is and is willing to continue conning out of what I assume is survival. I lost a few of her lines due to lack of projection, but missed nothing that threw me off course and, in such an intimate space, it still worked out nicely. Her bright, intense red dress and baby blue period shoes added to her character giving Montone a perfect look to go along with her wonderful performance.
A highlight for both actors is their chemistry onstage. Just like old friends or frienemies, Kehoe and Montone seems to completely understand their individual characters and how they relate to each other resulting in a beautiful duet between the both of them.
HOAX will also be presented at Baltimore Fringe this year, giving you yet another chance to check out this show.
Final thought… HOAX is an intense, powerful piece that engages the audience every step of the way. The lesson of how to spot and avoid a scam is important and relevant and the performances were brilliant. Having experience with more traditional theatre in more traditional spaces, I didn’t know what to expect with HOAX but I was in no way disappointed and recommend seeing this production. Don’t be one of those suckers born every minute that Mr. Barnum spoke about and miss this show!
This is what I thought of this production of HOAX… Do you have any thoughts?
HOAX will play through August 20, Friday-Saturday at 8pm at The 14 Karat Cabaret at Maryland Art Place (MAP), 218 W. Saratoga Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. For tickets, contact BoxOffice@MaxwellFink.com or call 443-681-9229 for assistance or purchase them online.