I was the kid who designed the haunted houses. Wait, it gets better: I made them for my church youth group. Over several Octobers, a child in a largely fear-based religion created a series of three-dimensional, performance-based metaphors for that twisted faith. They taught me what I'll call the economy of fear: how little it really takes to scare someone. As it turns out, total darkness isn't just the cheapest form of set design—sometimes it's the most effective.
All the dark part of our imagination requires (craves, in fact) is an environment blank and wide enough to hold one's greatest fears: a room whose size and occupants can't be seen; a wet, suppurating sound whose source can't be determined but clearly is approaching, along the floor.
It takes so little. Our own imaginations provide the rest.
So yes, Raleigh Ensemble Players' production of Struwwelpeter: A haunting revisited a few old haunts for me. Heinrich Hoffmann's 19th-century collection of illustrated, macabre nursery rhymes that graphically depicted what happened to bad little boys and girls were the inspiration for these inventive, original stage adaptations by director C. Glen Matthews and his ensemble. The result is a sometimes spooky, sometimes sparkling series of vignettes, in an interactive merger of live theater and a haunted house attraction. Achievements in ensemble acting, along with the gothic Victorian costumes, set, sound and props of the inspired design team (Shannon Clark, Thomas Mauney, Miyuki Su and Becca Easley) make Struwwelpeter a palpably atmospheric, eerie work.
At first, a gaunt Nic Carter led us down darkened corridors and introduced us, after a fashion, to most of the cast. We were shepherded through various spaces, including a main room that was repeatedly divided into alleyways and chambers by drapes (as in REP's production of Bent), until we'd explored most of the first floor's nooks and crannies. At a couple of points on opening night, some crowd-control issues threatened to turn suspense into ennui, but most of those concerns should be smoothed out easily enough.
A strong ensemble remains active throughout each sequence, embodying the forces of nature that, er, correct these errant little tykes. The work of Kirsten Ehlert and Hilary Edwards, as sisters ushering us into a phantasmagoria, is notable, as are Marilyn Gormon and Staci Sabarski's imposing Victorian matriarchs. Brian Yandle's performance as Frank, the Liar was particularly flavorful, as was Ivan Bobashev's uncanny master of ceremonies. Leo Brody and Ted Waechter amused as naughty children, while Ashlea Barnett and JaCynthia Wallace's narration added an extra frisson to a collection of cautionary tales that, more than a century later, still convey a lovely chill.