Theater archives

Shadow Plays


In his Scottish play, Shakespeare warned that “The instruments of darkness tell us truths.” This month, two photo- phobic Off-Broadway productions heed the Bard’s words by extinguishing their house lights altogether. In Rope, the Leo-pold and Loeb–esque protagonists dispose of a cadaver in the pitch dark of a London salon, their heinous act concealed by opaque Edwardian curtains. In Apparition, several ghost stories unfurl on a blackened stage with only candles or a solitary flashlight serving as luminary sustenance. If saving on your Con Ed bill constitutes high art, both plays deserve the biggest accolades. In the cruel glare of the curtain call, however, neither lives up to the suggestive power of their darkest moments.

First produced in 1929, and famously adapted for the screen by Alfred Hitchcock 20 years later, Patrick Hamilton’s Rope takes place over a single evening and in a single location, thus approximating Greek tragedy. Its fatally flawed hero is Brandon (Sam Trammell), a blond specimen of prep school privilege whose vanity compels him to commit a murder and then flaunt his accomplishment in alarming ways. Helped by his live-in boyfriend, Granillo (Chandler Williams), he strangles a school acquaintance and dumps the body in a living-room chest, which he later uses as a serving table for the evening’s dinner party.

Played in total obscurity, the scene is a nifty shadow drama of murky motives that possibly doubles as a coded sex act between the heavy-breathing conspirators. But as the guests arrive and the lights come up, Rope falls into arthritic lockstep with the PBS Mystery! brand of macabre whimsy. The cast bustles with strained levity, spraying jolly-goodisms with awkward abandon. The late appearance of Brandon’s insinuating schoolmaster (Zack Orth, apparently reading cue cards buried somewhere in his shirt collar) kicks the mystery into high gear, though Rope still takes an eternity to unmask its villains.

The sole point of intrigue remains the protagonists’ vaguely closeted relationship, which director David Warren labors to punctuate with overt hugs and gropes. Are they out? (Unlikely in early-20th- century England.) Are they quasi-out? At one point, an understandably confused guest dismisses the evening as “queer and dark.” He’s more accurate than he realizes, even if this indecisive production is ultimately lacking on both counts.

Anne Washburn’s Apparition announces its indecision from the get-go. “It was the 19th century, or something . . . ” says one of five performers, each costumed in what looks like Victorian formal meets downtown vintage. The able troupe spends the next 90 minutes conjuring tales of bloody burglary, occult worship, and mysterious baby-eating creatures. More strange than scary, this avant-horror anthology favors darkness over light and the gibberishly incomprehensible over the easily understood.

Like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw,
evokes a tremulous obsession with the unseen. Ghostly encounters are nervously recounted rather than restaged, and Washburn frequently cuts off the action just before the supernatural fully manifests itself. The play’s most memorable moments are the “non- luminous interludes,” which take place in the total absence of light and invite the audience’s blank-slate projections. Like radio horror plays of yesteryear, these scenes hinge on the cast’s tightly controlled delivery and a deep respect for the strategically deployed silence.

Washburn’s dialogue is a bizarre amalgam of made-up words and three-point-turn syntax that gives the impression of a cast possessed, though its aggressive nonsensicalness may end up grating even the most adventuresome theatergoers. More perplexing are Washburn’s fourth-wall-smashing techniques—in one scene, the actors play themselves assembled for a reading of the very play we’re watching. Perhaps allergic to traditional theater, Washburn drags the horror play kicking and screaming into the postmodern era. (Of the cast, Maria Dizzia and T. Ryder Smith best personify the tension between the classical and the contemporary.)

If its experimentation yields diminishing returns, Apparition knows when to cut its losses, flipping the light switch to plunge us back into the comforting uncertainty of the night.