The five-year-old Claire Tow Theater perches on the roof of the Vivian Beaumont, a component of Lincoln Center. For the next several weeks it’s home to Ghost Light, a Third Rail Projects extravaganza. Conceived, directed, and choreographed by Zach Morris and Jennine Willett, two of the troupe’s founders (the third, Tom Pearson, is developing other material), and written by Morris, the show is a “performance about performance,” a romance for theater geeks that begins — for me, anyway; every spectator has a slightly different experience, herded around by various members of the cast — at the end of an after-party, vases of flowers spilled on the floor, actors smashed, the bartender cavorting in a dress. That bartender, the chrome-domed Alberto Denis, is omnipresent as a busy, black-clad stagehand, ferrying props through corridors and rehearsal rooms.
The actors playing actors spend a lot of time mooning, seducing, and telling rambling tales of ghostly characters who haunt the corridors and cabinets of theaters. The ones playing the crew have the most to say and do. The genuine successes are the comic roles: Elizabeth Carena, as a scrawny trollop who serenades us in a practice room, and Josh Matthews as Sam, whose name we learn from the patch on his janitor’s coveralls. Addressing us in a coffee room, he asks us to raise our hands if we went to college. All six of us do. He tells us calmly, “I’ll teach you how to mop.” Later he has a hair-raising encounter with a haunted dress form.
Other performers address you directly but rarely wait for an answer; for that matter, they hardly speak to each other. Third Rail, founded in 2000, was originally the project of a group of dancers, and several hit shows later that pedigree is still evident; the ensemble privileges physical theater, treating language as an afterthought. But my favorite parts are the most verbal: Carlton Cyrus Ward’s turn as the actor-manager of a Shakespearean mash-up, redolent of The Taming of the Shrew and the Bard’s history plays, and Carena’s lyrics for her lusty song about a brothel. Sean Hagerty’s sound design is a marvel: In the “things we’re usually not privy to” department, I treasured eavesdropping on the headset-to-headset light-plot instructions audible behind glamour-girl Roxanne Kidd’s rehearsal, as well as overhearing the director giving her notes.
Each performance accommodates a maximum of 108 ticket-holders moving through its labyrinthine paths in small groups, rarely more than seven or eight in a room. You get up close to maquettes of costumes and stage furniture, pull ropes, flip switches, create special effects. Only in the final moments do you relax into a theater seat, watching characters from several plays emote simultaneously, and then notice the ghost light — a caged bulb — standing sentinel in the dark.
Ghost Light demonstrates that theater really is a job; for all the out-front posturing and drama, the production is a collaboration among many craftspeople with diverse skills. For two hours it keeps you so busy running and climbing, snaking through narrow passageways, fielding flying props and taking orders from people you’ve barely met, that you manage to forget the mess in the outside world.
Claire Tow Theater
150 West 65th Street
Through August 6