Spirits of Petersville

Warning: This review may contain spoilers.

By Jason Rip
Directed by Jason Rip
A Theatre Nemesis Production
Grosvenor Lodge
October 23–October 25, 2008

At Grosvenor Lodge, dark spirits are afoot within its walls once again.  With masterful writing by Jason Rip, the Theatre Nemesis company has put on a superb collection of artfully eerie one player shows.

The Hostess
Played by Laura DiTrolio

This sketch is an obvious framing device where a very sick woman is forced to get out of bed to investigate strange noises.  While doing so, DiTrolio’s character is heard primarily off stage as the actress succinctly establishes her whiny and defensive character.  When she does appear, DiTriolio just needs some subtle makeup complementing a weak and shaky posture to convince you she’s at death’s door.

However, DiTrolio then carefully undercuts her sympathy with contradictory audience interactions where her craving sympathy jars against her revulsion of real human contact.  Thus the character effectively establishes the strange atmosphere of the show even as the other characters of the show appear to take their places.  With that task done, our hostess slinks off as the ghosts begin their tales.

The Bone Whistle
Played by Azar Hassan

Azar Hassan gives a strangely enigmatic show of a young writer recording his story about a cursed pipe coming into his possession and the fate he tempts with it.  The special twist here is that he has a lie detector with him to catch himself in any self deceptions as if he himself needs to be convinced of the insane story he tells.

Thus Hassan creates a fascinating inner conflict within his character between his rationality and credulity as he struggles to decide to take a dark dare.  When the act ends with the character investigating a strange sound outside, there is no firm revelation what happens to him.  Instead, you are left intrigued about how much you want to believe about his story about old curses and their consequences.

Down By the The Tracks
Played by Jeff Werkmeister

By contrast Jeff Werkmeister enjoys a chance to clown around with a broad character as a classic hobo who tells a tale that is not for the squeamish.

With only an old hat, a cane and a special hidden prop, Werkmeister creates an irresistible character who can tell the most tragic tale with a comical detachment.  Instead, he takes the most horrific things in stride and makes the best of it as he welcomes the little blessings that come with them.  As a result, this superb actor is able to lighten the mood without spoiling the atmosphere to mark the halfway point.

Mrs. Chillup
Played by Kim Kaitell

Kim Kaitell smoothly transitions from Werkmeister’s clowning with an enthralling character of her own.  Feeling nothing less than a slightly less strange version of Morticia Addams, Kaitell tells a equally quirky haunted house story with a ghost named Mrs. Chillup who breaks all the supernatural rules.  In doing so, Kaitell defies some conventions of her own considering that she welcomes the haunting like a charming accoutrement to her real estate purchase.

However, Kaitell’s character deepens with a most surprising way as the novelty of her situation gives way to a bizarrely charming affection for the cause.  Using only a wheelchair to represent the title character, Kaitell defrosts her character into a warmer and likable eccentric.  By the end, you can’t help but smile at this woman may be the ultimate middle class goth, but who has nurtured a gentle inner light that a ghost managed to spark.

Ailu, Queen of the Night
Played by Lorissa Sinasac

When you see Lorissa Sinasac’s character crawling and remaining balled up during the preceding acts, you know that this will be no ordinary sketch.

Sure enough, Sinasac does not disappoint with an unforgettable performance done with wild animalistic abandon.  Being a succubus, her character engages with a battle of wills with an unseen priest that she finds most entertaining with the challenge.  In that conflict, Ailu’s jumps about and snarls may be disturbing, but her vivacious joy is irresistible in its own way.  However, even as your mind sorts out the contradiction, your attention will still be riveted to this character as you decide.

To aid in this performance, Sinasac has easily the most distinctive costume with black hose, wings and gauze to give her an otherworldly look that is as irresistible as her character.  However, the makeup is bit over the top with face paint that looks more like a KISS groupie than a demon, which undermines the effect.

Snacky Says So
Played by Clara Madrenas

Just like how a ballad works best after a loud fast song, this final sketch is truly the best in the spirit of the season.  Clara Madrenas plays a schoolgirl who is so taken by a gerbil she names Snacky that she has committed an unspeakable deed for him with consequences she cannot understand.

As Madrenas sits for her performance until her sketch starts, you are lulled into a seductive complacency with her school uniform giving her a feel of utter innocuousness.  However, that presumption is shattered with an emotional sledgehammer as she begins her conversation with her beloved rodent.  With a childish sing song voice, the actress creates a disturbingly effective performance of a girl who is a lunatic in a situation totally beyond her depth.

As she attempts to comprehend it, you will be creeped out at both her actions and your own sympathy for her.  After all, you can’t help but wonder how will she live, where will she go and why do you care at all?  It’s a special talent to create such a balance of emotions and fuse them into a unsettling emotional mosaic, and Madrenas, guided by Rip’s brilliant writing, has all she needs to carry it off.

Unlike the Frights of Spring production at the Lodge, the entire show takes place in one long room in the building.  Unfortunately, this unusual venue is forced to compromise on a lengthwise seating arrangement with numerous chairs in awkward positions.  As a result, a large attendance could have required some to sit where they would have a poor viewing angle and/or obstacles to interfere with seeing the show.  The rotating rooms format of Frights would likely be more equitable and practical, although the reasonably sized audience, who were able to avoid the worst seats at the show I attended, had no complaints.

In addition, the lighting was a bit of a problem as a dining room is obviously not designed for stage lighting.  As a result, many of the standard lights have to be used and the atmosphere suffers a bit for it.  However, it’s a relatively minor complaint when balanced against the verisimilitude of the Lodge to provide the essential character to make the show work.

The haunted house theme is nearly as old as fiction itself, but leave it to Jason Rip and company to create the original within the classic.  While the location staging is not ideal for this show, I am still eager to see what spookiness will come forth next at Grosvenor Lodge.