Halloween has passed, but if your appetite for scary stories has not departed with your sugar rush, you might seek out Americana Kamikaze at P.S.122 or The New Electric Ballroom at St. Ann’s Warehouse. In the former, Temporary Distortion refracts a Japanese ghost yarn through a New York avant-garde lens. In the latter, written and directed by Enda Walsh, no supernatural elements appear. Instead, Walsh suggests that stories themselves are the portal to nightmares, that narrative iteration haunts characters more effectively than any ghoul or demon.
In Americana Kamikaze, writer-director Kenneth Collins and video artist William Cusick maintain a tense interplay between the actors onstage and those onscreen. Live, they stand in eerily lit booths, facing front, speaking impassively into microphones. Filmed, they cozy up to Eros and Thanatos. While the live ones recite banalities, the filmed ones meet in hotel rooms, leap from buildings, and attempt to slaughter one another. The action focuses on two married couples and apparently centers on a wronged woman who returns to Earth in the form of a smirking phantom. “Campfire-type shit,” as one character puts it.
Collins’s script sometimes substitutes reticence for profundity, or profanity for engagement, though the declaration that other people “bleed the fucking shit out of you” is, I suppose, evocative. Ryosuke Yamada has a creepy, glittery-eyed stage presence, and Yuki Kawahisa is resplendent in a red fetish outfit, yet the actors fare better in the more vigorous video sequences, which Cusick crafts with aplomb. If the script itself doesn’t thrill, the interchange between liveness and mediation, between sound and image, certainly just might. And the ghost story, though elliptical, is pleasantly chilling. A little “campfire-type shit” can turn an audience into so many marshmallows.
The New Electric Ballroom, which hails from Ireland’s Druid theater, features not marshmallows but a delectable pink sponge cake that perches on the living room table like a gun in a Chekhov play. If a cake appears in the first act, someone will be smeared with frosting by the last, and Walsh doesn’t alter this formula. Indeed, this piece—like its companion, The Walworth Farce, which appeared at St. Ann’s last year—is in many ways about formula.
While still in their teens, sisters Clara (Ruth McCabe) and Breda (Rosaleen Linehan) suffered a traumatic event at the titular nightspot. Now in their sixties, they have distilled that chaotic ordeal into a precise routine, which they repeat several times each day with the encouragement of their much younger sister, Ada (Catherine Walsh). As a soundtrack plays and a klieg light shines, the women don their youthful finery—sequined sweaters and gauzy skirts—forever reviving their moment of erotic loss. Each retelling seems to wreck them anew, confirming their reclusiveness.
Though Walsh writes with gorgeous, playful language, his works continually insist on the ways that speech can fetter and calcify the soul. Here, people are “scarred,” “boxed,” “marked,” “branded,” and “stamped” by words. Toward the play’s end, the sisters attempt to break away, to attempt a rewrite, but narrative takes its revenge. Walsh does not rely on any macabre effects: no blood, no murder, only an occasional scream. Yet his vision of the world—and of the theater, that place where stories repeat and repeat—proves more terrifying than any horror film. Ask Ada, who bitterly whispers, “Doesn’t story always find a way to catch us out?”