An ambitious show calls for ambitious materials: LED lights, wigs, foam armor, bicycle tubes, belly-dancing outfits and telescoping wooden columns.
There were no creative limitations in creating a futuristic sci-fi world, where electricity is currency and an oppressive pharaoh keeps the people deeply divided into two classes — the upper-class “luxies” and the lower-class “dimmers.”
It’s the space-age setting for “Electric Pharaoh,” the sixth original production from the Baltimore Rock Opera Society, or the BROS, as members and devotees affectionately call the organization. The show premieres tonight and runs through Oct. 26 in Baltimore.
It follows the story of a boy named Chenzira, who is searching for thesecrets of the pyramids and learning how to harness his own ability to generate electricity. “What he will find could change his life and rescue humanity from a futuristic dark age,” the BROS website says.
On a recent Monday night in Baltimore, volunteers — everyone involved in the production is a volunteer — were building pieces of the set and working on costumes in an old warehouse in north Baltimore called the Bell Foundry, which serves as BROS headquarters. Chuck Green, who came up with the concept of the show and helped write the script, was wiring panels of LED lights to a pharaoh helmet.
Volunteer coordinator Miriam Cummons was putting the finishing touches on some wigs with fellow volunteer Heather Graham. Some were cutting and painting foam armor, which would also be wired with LED lights, while others were building parts of the set. Design director Naomi Davidoff showed off some of her costume sketches and finished costumes, some of which had LED lights sewn into the seams.
“It’s going to be kind of crazy, and all of this is wirelessly controlled,” said Davidoff. “I have no idea how it all works.”
“Electric Pharaoh” costumes will feature 15 sets of LED lights that will be wirelessly controlled and, for parts of the show, synched with the music and video projections that are mapped to different parts of the stage.
“There are programmers involved, people that are really highly technically involved — typically, those people are kind of hard to find,” said Mason Ross, the show’s director. “Not to mention to have so many wireless elements talking to each other and triggering each other. To be honest, you don’t even see that that often in professional theater.”
The BROS, the brainchild of four Goucher College graduates and a common friend, who founder Aran Keating said were “mythologizing their own lives in the most ridiculous ways,” started in 2009 with heavy metal musical “Gründlehämmer.” It has since morphed into a force to be reckoned with, boasting sold-out original productions, appearances at Artscape and other street festivals and self-branded annual parties.
“After ‘Gründlehämmer’ we kind of sat down and realized that we sold out three nights of this show and it probably wasn’t a fluke that we’d come together and rallied this community of people, and really built this community of people around the show,” Dylan Koehler, one of the founders, said. “We’re all here to make something really awesome that’s greater than the sum of its parts.”
For a do-it-yourself theater, the BROS is rich with resources and enthusiasm. Ross, who has been involved in Baltimore’s DIY theater community for about 10 years, said directing the show is “a lot of making sure that all of the tentacles of this many-armed beast know what’s going on.” Between the cast, band, lighting, sound, sets, props, costumes, multimedia and other departments, there are more than 100 volunteers working on the show.
“Every show is another way to just be even more ridiculous and awesome, and they do take the camaraderie and the spirit of the company seriously,” Cummons said. “It makes the community really inclusive because they’re always looking for new kind of talent. They’re looking for people who breathe fire or use a loom. It’s any crazy combination of stuff.”
And the talented came out, in large numbers. Both Ross and Erica Patoka, the vocal director, assistant music director and one of the band’s keyboardists, said they had no trouble filling out the cast and band with top-notch performers. It was the first time the BROS held band auditions, which brought in a pool of professional musicians ready to tackle the show’s multi-genre score.
“It’s like the marriage of the best of 1990s electronica from Europe to here, merged with like a smidgen of industrial music, merged with the best of true rock from the 1960s to now,” Patoka said. “If you can’t imagine it, you should see the show.”
Jon Caplan, one of the band’s two guitarists, hadn’t played a BROS production in a few years. He thought with auditions being held, he’d get
a chance to play in some kind of Baltimore all-star band, and he has not been disappointed.
“It’s, like, amazing,” he said, recalling painstakingly long rehearsals for some earlier shows. “I think we could all make the claim to be professional musicians in our personal lives, so we all came in prepared.”
Patoka, who speaks proudly about flunking out of Peabody Conservatory twice — once for piano and once for flute, co-wrote much of the music for “Electric Pharaoh.” And although it was a labor-intensive process, Patoka never regrets spending her evenings outside of work with the BROS.
“The people at my job think I’m nuts. I’m a nurse practitioner by day, or as my mother would say, ‘almost a doctor,’ so that’s my day job — very busy, very crazy, saving lives, whatever,” she said, “and then I get here, and it’s that Jekyll/Hyde existence, I think, that keeps us alive.”
So the BROS have a top-notch band, video projections and LED-lit costumes, but does the depth of story match the intensity of the production? Ross seems to think so.
“I think the job of science fiction is to ask what other moral complications and questions we would have to ask ourselves, given certain advances in technology and society,” he said. “I think that the script does that.”
After the show’s Baltimore run, the BROS hits the road to take the production to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
“Everyone’s going to have a party mom, which is going to be like a team captain, to do headcounts and stuff,” said Cummons, who is charged with figuring out how to house and transport about 100 people for the tours. “Everyone is smart, ready to have a good time in safe way.”
“Electric Pharaoh” runs through Oct. 26 at Lithuanian Hall, 851 Hollins St., Baltimore. Tickets range from $20 to $40 and can be purchased at bros.tixato.com/buy.