It is the week of Halloween, when we respond to terror, death and whatever lurks beyond with American pragmatism—by changing our identity, at least for an evening. But such dodges are never foolproof. As commedia dell'arte shows us, the masks we choose reveal a facet, if not the core, of our true selves. Three worthy productions remind us that it's fitting to honor our ghosts. Those who haunt us give us meaning—and, occasionally, a helping hand.
In the lightest of the trio, Temple Theatre's musical production of THE ADDAMS FAMILY, the ancestors of the title clan, cunningly costumed by artistic director Peggy Taphorn, aren't merely commemorated. Uncle Fester (vivid, avuncular Gavan Pamer) enlists them after the dour Wednesday (Kelsey Walston) has fallen in love with Lucas (Levi Squier), and the two have arranged for their families to meet—at which time they'll break the news to all that they're getting married.
The anticipated complications manifest after Wednesday beseeches her father, Gomez, not to tell Morticia, her mother, of the impending nuptials, and then implores the rest of her outré family for "One Normal Night" when meeting Lucas' comparatively normal parents.
It's one of the strongest shows I've seen recently at Temple Theatre, anchored by professional performances by actors in the major roles. Under Greta Zandstra's direction, Galloway Stevens commands the stage as Gomez, and Amy Alvino proves to be his match as an imperious Morticia. Kathy Day's earthy Grandma counsels Garrett Howell's Pugsley, before Taylor Hambrick's oddly moving ode, "Move Toward the Darkness," as Lurch. Robyne Parrish and Bill Saunders provide able support as Lucas' bewildered parents.
Under Clifton Cuddington III's musical direction, the ensemble triumphed over prerecorded accompaniment, in a show whose achievements outshine a sometimes sappy book and score.
At Manbites Dog Theater, the ghosts that haunt the characters in MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY are considerably more substantial. They are remnants of a lost American way of life, in the near-future, after a series of nuclear reactor breaches has killed millions of people and contaminated much of the land. With electricity a thing of the past, we quickly gather during the opening campfire conversation that social order has broken down.
As a quartet of survivors (convincingly played by Michael Brocki, Marcia Edmundson, Lormarev Jones and Geraud Staton) entertain one another, trying to recount the "Cape Feare" episode of The Simpsons, noises from the dark stop the recital and each member grabs a firearm. When a stranger named Gibson (Derrick Ivey) calls from the shadows, he's frisked. His weapons are confiscated, and the ensuing conversation starts at gunpoint.
In this future, lists on scraps of paper are important. The names of people these involuntary nomads encounter are compared, in a somber recital, with those of the people each character is missing. As director Jeff Storer demonstrates, hauntings don't get much more palpable than this.
But seven years later, in the second act, the focus shifts from individual to communal losses. The group has expanded and is now a theater company, rehearsing a performance of that Simpsons episode. But as Ivey and Julie Oliver's characters rehearse the commercials that abut the scenes, we are made to see that no one in this world has had a nice hot bath, or tasted a cup of coffee, in quite some time.
In The Drowned and the Saved, Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi noted that concentration camp inmates were more likely to survive if they could salvage the memory of one thing from their former worlds. In Anne Washburn's script, memory is often provisional and incomplete, but it remains the first step from which a world must be rebuilt.
I trust it's not a spoiler to say that metaphorical safety nets are torn asunder in the collaboration between Brooklyn's Only Child Aerial Theatre and Raleigh's Burning Coal Theatre Company. The stakes are heightened in the dance/theater work ASYLUM because those social webworks of last resort are made literal in the form of white silks that descend two stories from the lighting grid above the stage.
The patients of this mental institution—company co-founder Kendall Rileigh, actors Sloan Bradford, Deon Releford-Lee and Samantha Sterman—ascend and fashion them into womblike hammocks as well as vehicles for flights of imagination and desperation. Between those sections, Mikaela Saccoccio's kindly doctor intervenes, and director Nicki Miller's increasingly overwhelmed nurse attempts to keep order among her patients' sometimes felicitous, sometimes fractious interactions.
But as those familiar with the recent history of mental health care in the U.S. will anticipate, the provisional shelter these characters craft is ultimately more threatened by forces from without than from within.
Asylum is no exposé in the vein of Geraldo Rivera's groundbreaking 1972 documentary, Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace. Instead, Miller has crafted a study of the characters, using movement, music and shadow puppets to humbly communicate their defenselessness, their past and their present. The characters' futures are disclosed, without comment, in the color photography projected at the show's haunting end.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Ghost stories"