Goodbye theatre, hello HellSpawn!
Active Cultures Theatre presents HellSpawn, directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner. Sharing the common theme of demonic possession – the three short shows run less than an hour and a half combined and present a unique look at local folklore revolving around the story of the exorcist that supposedly took place here in Maryland.
The first play, To Hell and Back, written by April Brassard, is a simple re-telling of the story of The Exorcist, from the young boy’s possession to his exorcism. The second play, Never Have I Ever, written by Jessica Burgess and Mary Resing, is the story of three girls at a sleepover on Halloween night in the house across the street from the exorcist house. And the third play, Rare Medium Well Done, written by Alexandra Petri, involves pithy one-liners in a comic endeavor of two yuppie parents to get their demonically possessed daughter into Brown University.
The found space is absolutely fantastic. The walls are unfinished, crumbling in places, and the floor is uneven. It creates the spooky atmosphere that sends chills up your spine from the moment you enter. Set and Prop Designer Steven Royal creates some extra thrills by recreating the simplistic bedroom for the exorcism in the first play. But the big scares are owed to Kenny Neal, designer of the frightening soundtrack that accompanies the three pieces. From white noise, to eerie demonic sounding howls, Neal lays on the terror and sets the mood of dark and creepy.
The stories themselves are flat, fairly unimaginative and the second story could be skipped entirely without affecting the show. But the actors try their best to work with the material. Max Jackson, an eleven year-old boy, takes on the difficult task of playing Ronnie Harris in To Hell and Back. Jackson flows easily into the role of the possessed boy, switching seamlessly from his young innocent boyish voice, to the deeper and slightly accented voice of Satan. It sends a shiver up your spine when he crawls across the floor, twisting his arms and legs in every direction and then jumps up on the bed to give a guttural demonic howl. The youngster completely steals the show as creepiest of them all and plays out his possession to the max.
Another stunning performance is given from Tiffany Garfinkle, who plays three different characters during the production; one in each play. She starts as the stoic, prayer-bound mother in To Hell and Back, moves onto a hyper, uppity teenager in Never Have I Ever, and finishes the show as the demon possessing young Argyll who is trying to get into Brown University in Rare Medium Well Done. Garfinkle provides laughs and terror in her varying roles. Her transitions from character to character are sharp with no residuals of the previous one showing in her current one. As the mother her posture is stiff and her voice tight as she chastises the priests for not exorcising her son fast enough. As the young teenager you get to experience her performance first as the overactive bouncing giggling ball of energy, and then as the terrified repentant youth. Her facial expressions as she’s hissing and clawing at the medium are priceless as she plays the demon in the third play. She steals the show in all three plays, and you simply cannot take your eyes off of her.
Strangely enough the most enjoyable moments of the show, the true chilling bits, don’t happen during the three plays, but rather during the blackouts and scene transitions. Gardner has conceptualized actual fear by allowing the actors to stand in darkness, lit only by individual flashlights under their chins when they are speaking. They each tell a tale, a true tale of some supernatural experience they have encountered. Hearing these stories was more frightening than watching most of the possessions, Jackson’s performance excluded because he was really quite scary. Many of the local references are lost on audiences who are not from the immediate area and perhaps a bit of dramaturgical research should be involved before venturing out to see the show.
If you’re up for a spook, and want to see a very talented young boy scare the heebie-jeebies out of you, then head on down to HellSpawn for a spine-tingling event.
HellSpawn runs through October 22nd, at The Riverdale Park Town Center – 4650 Queensbury Road in Riverdale Park MD. And then the play moves on October 27th – 30th, to The Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s Melton Rehearsal Hall – 641 D Street, NW, in Washington, DC. Order your tickets online, or call (800) 494-8497.