Sunday, October 22, 2017

afterlife: a ghost story (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Most ghost stories are about either Death or the Past.  Sometimes both.  The Past, pretty much because that is a definition of "haunted," as in the inability of the past to go away.  It remains here, somehow still alive, unwilling to let go.  Death, meanwhile, remains that "undiscovered country" from whom no traveler returns.  The proof of our sentience, and its curse--we know this will be our fate.

afterlife, a ghost story is about both.  The play by Steve Yockey focuses on a married couple trying desperately to deal with the loss of their son. As a huge storm approaches, the visit their seaside house to lock things away.  They haven't been back since their child was carried away by the waves.  Danielle (Meg Wallace) is distracted to put it mildly.  She finds everything surreal, being back.  She lashes out, wanders in her mind, tries so very hard to figure out how to process the grief.  Her husband Connor (Joshua James Knightley) has tried, maybe found a kind of brittle peace, which makes him a figure of envy and outrage.

Act One consists of the two revisiting the past, remembering their past love of the sea.  Both realize something very odd is going on.  The island is almost deserted, hardly surprising given the warnings about a major storm on the way.  But why are there so many dead fish on shore?  More, where did these weird black birds come from?  It all seemingly starts to really unravel when Danielle on her own, looking out to the sea, utters a venomous monologue about how much she hates it.  The hungry waves that took her child and does not care.  The endless churning waters eventually taking all things.  How Danielle loathes it!  Despises that which took her child!  Wants to be with him so badly she even offers to let the sea take her, right now!

Connor saves her, this time.  As the storm rises, it proves far more powerful than they imagined.  They start to flee in terror...!

In Act Two we begin to meet others, although where precisely they (and we) now are isn't precisely clear.  There's a Young Man (Buddy Handleson) who keeps writing letters to his father and mother, promising he is trying to get back to them.  He talks about This Place, where lots of strange people live, and weird boats traverse the waters between different islands.  Oh yeah, there are also the Black Birds -- pushy, ominous things that keep trying to get into his little house.

Danielle finds herself in what seems like a house.  Or maybe just a room.  The Proprietress (Mary Burkin) offers her tea, while at her side a half-mad Seamstress (Georgan George) laughs at inappropriate times.  The Proprietress explains she's likely going to be here a long, long time and she should plan as well as behave accordingly.  We soon figure out--or are more-or-less informed--who (or WHAT) the Proprietress really is, while the Seamstress seems to have rather a lot in common with Danielle.

Connor, alone on a beach, with a blindfold, talks to someone (Edgar Allan Poe IV) whom he does not realize is a large Black Bird.  Feel free to enjoy the pun, by all means.  This Bird elicits memories from him, and once Connor shares a memory it seems to go away...

Honestly the whole play reminded me of a long (and good) episode of either The Twilight Zone or maybe The Outer Limits.  Director Steven Jarrard said this was his goal and he certainly achieved it!  The whole cast and crew did!  But most of all what they all achieved was an eerie fable, not unlike one of the earliest versions of classic fairy tales--the ones that lack anything like a simple answer obvious at first reading or hearing.

Many might find the play comforting.  Others might react by becoming upset.  Maybe both.  Which by this writer's standards qualifies as a compliment!  At heart it comes across as a very personal encounter with the Uncanny, the transcendent which hints this world as we see it makes up such a tiny bit of reality.  Ask a modern physicist for details about that if you seek some enlightenment stirred into with more than a few drops of fear. 

afterlife: a ghost story plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm until November 12, 2017 at the Avery Shrieber Playhouse, 4934 Lankershim Blvd (south of Magnolia), North Hollywood CA 91601.

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