The fall production of theater group NOMADS (New and Original Material Authored and Directed by Students), American Ghosts, premiered last night in the Glicker-Milstein blackbox theatre, located on LL2 of the Diana Center; the show runs through Saturday, with performances beginning at 8 pm and running a little over an hour. Bwog’s Meandering Medium Marcus Levine reviews.
“What haunts you?” The creators of this project, Lorenzo Landini (CC ’13) and Alex Katz (CC ’14), prompted prospective writers with precisely this question. An exploration in five parts of what it means to be “haunted” in America, American Ghosts presents original work from five playwrights, whose work was selected from an initial pool of fifteen applicants. Each short (10-30 minute) piece presents a fully encapsulated world, while the musical, design, and directorial elements weave the disparate plots together into a thrilling ghost story which reaches into the past for clichéd references, while remaining squarely contemporary with our ever-ironic era.
Krista White’s Ward Seven starts off the production with a Sartre-esque interplay between three clearly deranged individuals. An explosive young girl, Matilda (Carly Ginsberg, BC ’15), an insecure army officer, Lieutenant Gumble (Eric Wimer CC ’16) and a senile old woman, Gertrude (Anika Benkov, CC ’16) await the arrival of the ever-mysterious Man in Black (Jonathan Gutterman, GS ’13). Ginsberg’s genuine temper-tantrums and focus-stealing expressiveness counter the innocent reserve and calm demeanor of Benkov, while Wimer’s curt but cordial army discipline would have been strengthened by dropping the inconsistent Southern drawl.
Edge of the Cradle by Kyle Radler follows with a slice-of-life insight into the difficulties of miscarriage and changing social norms. Husband and wife Robert (Keanu Ross-Cabrera, CC ’16) and Victoria (Min Ju “Kate” Kim, CC ’16) have just miscarried their second child, while their first is off for a day at the beach with Robert’s parents Bill (Chris Browner CC ’16) and Julia (Katie Craddock, BC ’13), and their potentially pedophilic friend Gil, also played by Wimer. Kim’s attempted but lukewarm distress pales next to Craddock’s candor and Wimer’s commitment to creepiness, probably because few at our age have experienced the distress of miscarrying a child. While Ross-Cabrera’s stilted speech at first reeked of poorly memorized lines, that vocalization later proved a crucial plot point, which was accompanied by one of the show’s distinctive lighting moments designed by Alex Mark (CC ’15).
Bijan Samareh’s hilarious Cletus and the Magic Joint provides both comic relief to the show’s so far dramatic lineup and an artistic high-point with its ironical, self-aware content. Cletus (Chris Browner, CC ’16), adorned in the perfectly kitsch white-sheet ghost costume of designer Sam Mickel (CC ’14), is a young boy whose crush Sally (also Craddock) has, in stereotypical fashion, upset him by accusing his costume of not being “scary.” In his moment of despair, the archetype mentor appears: the ghost of “Frank E.” Cummings (Jonathan Gutterman, GS ’13), whose tombstone Cletus is sitting in front of, ready to instruct the boy in “scariness” via a Magic Joint. Browner’s petulant performance as the lovable Cletus contrasts starkly with his unremarkable role in Edge of the Cradle, Craddock maintains her believable characterization, and Gutterman demonstrates an incredible acting range when compared to his role in Ward Seven. To top off this romp-roaring pop-culture interlude, bubbly producer Amelia Lembeck (BC ’14) makes a ridiculously appropriate cameo appearance as Casper the Friendly Ghost.
Slowly returning to the dark and dismal from the bright and cheery, Distant by project co-creator Lorenzo Landini slips the audience into a late-night hangout of former lesbian lovers Dylan (Kayla van de Bunt, CC ’14) and Alexandra (also Benkov). Though the theme of sexuality is a bit over-played in the piece, van de Bunt’s tom-boyish swagger sparks off of Benkov’s faux-studiousness to give the sense of actual romance. Technical director Anuradha Golder’s skillful incorporation of projected text messages and stage-floor chalk messages flushes out the background of this homosexual intrigue.
Possession by Alex Katz finishes off the night with the only genuine ghost story. As an exhibit of haunted objects opens at the Smithsonian museum, irreverent curator Emily (Benkov, once again) is confronted by the desperate son of one of the artifact’s owners, Nicholas Wayne (also Ross-Cabrera). As he believably attempts to reclaim the treasured artifact (a conspicuously invisible, i.e. sans prop, revolver), Benkov persuasively convinces him of the irrationality of superstition, capturing a very real contemporary sentiment with understanding and poise. Meanwhile, a soap-operatic drama begins to unfold on the other side of the stage in American Ghosts‘ only period segment, as a confrontation between mother Rebecca (also Ginsberg) and daughter Catherine (also van de Bunt) in a 1930’s Southern aristocratic sitting room quickly escalates to murder. The cast of this piece successfully navigate a complex plot structure, but the limitations of the space and some awkward blocking took away from the thrust of its high conceptual aspirations.
I conclude this review with a beginning. Last night, the show began with a decidedly awkward waiting game: on stage is a table and chairs with a set chess board, a solitary un-shaded lamp known in the theater world as a ghost light, and talented composer Max Druz sitting at a piano, impatiently glancing at the booth, waiting for the house lights to go down. For about three full minutes. While at the time I was not sure whether this protracted, anticipatory silence was intentional, I decided to include it in this review because of something the director Katey Howitt (CC ’13) said to me before the show: the most incredible thing about theater is that each individual involved, from the technicians in the booth to the audience members in the seats to the actors on stage, takes away something different from the experience. This review presents not what the show actually is, or what it ought to be, but what I took away from it — and what you might take away, too.