A Little Walking Around Theatre

After being told I couldn’t even get in the door at the Spooky Action Theatre until my cell phone was shut off, I thought: They are really cracking down on these electronic devices!

Actually it was the first indication of a night of being told where to go, what to do and when to move in what is the theater’s first interactive, “site specific” work.

Every Spooky Action production I’ve seen has made primal use of the basement of the Universalist National Memorial Church on 16th St. NW that has been their home for four years. Audiences would be put on one end for one show, and another end for the next. It’s one of the best and most creative uses of spaces in town.

But those are nothing compared to the complicated setup for “Kwaidan,” when, after finally getting into the building (one must knock, and be received, and the “portal” must open) audience members are led into anterooms of the 84-year-old Romanesque Revival church, designed by the architects of New York’s Riverside Church.

When indicated, audiences travel down candlelit hallways, crowd into stairwells, gather into cleared-out classrooms and finally to the big arches of the main sanctuary.

It would be a good architectural tour if it wasn’t traveling theater, but that is its main intent.

“Kwaidan” collects the eerie stories of writer Lafcadio Hearn, who after living in Greece, Ireland and the U.S. came to Japan at the end of the 18th century when people told him odd, urgent tales of death, woe, lost love and various hauntings.

The stories are parceled out one per space, recycling the cast of a half dozen in various robes.

David Gaines plays the writer Hearn, who enters, like the audience, getting his papers stamped by an official inside the door, looking around and not knowing what will happen next. Gathered in the tiled vestibule, smoke begins to pour down the stairway, the odd wailing emanating from deep in the building seem to rise, soon people in kabuki masks begin to appear.

The silent character motions him to follow; he in turn motions to the audience to follow him.

Audiences are game to follow; when in rooms with chairs, there is a musical chairs like scramble for seats.

The stories, adapted by artistic director Richard Henrich and director Izumi Ashizawa, generally work well in their individual environments. They are acted out decently without having actors having to poke or otherwise yell “Boo!” to the crowd.

After years of explaining how Spooky Action Theatre refers to an Einstein term in quantum mechanics, this play’s intent is to actually be spooky and, often it works.

But as fun as it is to be led to all different corners of the church, the constant movement works against the drama.

For one thing, those who are inclined to let others pass politely first invariably arrive at the next space with the story already in progress. Those late to the room may never be able to catch up and can only hope to be speedier to the next space.

There is also the underlying drama of the audience scuttling along to each space, causing their own serialized story. Will the lady with the Big Gulp cup finally find a place to put it down or, even better, discard? Will the ancient tale of woe be interrupted by a viewer who suddenly decides to start lumbering over to the other side of the room? Will the path of a circling ghost be interrupted by some poor spectator standing in the wrong place?

Worse is when audience members are asked to take part: To help look for something a ghost is seeking in a cabinet, or to grab hold of a body on the floor and help move it.

What already had the trappings of a high toned Haunted House suddenly tumbles to  Dora the Explorer style interactivity.

At one point I sat in a pew right next to someone’s bird mask, sure that I was in the wrong place and probably preventing some costumed moment but not willing to make things worse by moving in the middle of a scene.

As creative as the idea is, and as interesting as it is to see the church, the fact is that the stories are harmed by dragging them room to room, with only about half the tales really hitting home.

We can’t give set designer Czerton Lim and scenic artist Carolyn Hampton the credit for the grand building, but they add some nice touches to raise the atmosphere, from white cloth covered furniture and pictures, to flickering candles and mounds of skulls.

The stacking of chairs in a basement space – where the plays are usually held – is the most artful setting. Throughout, Brian S. Allard’s haze-aided lighting is effective. But he probably doesn’t get credit for the neatest effect: Car lights from the parking lot shining bush shadows on the curtains in an early room, adding an unintended added atmosphere (but if he was behind this effect, though: bravo!).

Neil McFadden’s sound design was restrained and because it was more based on unseen human voices than amplified recordings, much more effective.

It will be interesting to see how “Kwaidan” is staged when they present, amid its current run, an ADA accessible performance across town at the Atlas Performing Arts Center June 17. I’m thinking audiences will likely get more out of it – and find a place to set their drink.

The Spooky Action Theater production of Kwaidan continues through June 22 at the Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th St., NW, Washington, D.C. An ADA accessible performances will be held June 17 at the Atlas Performing Arts center, 1333 H St. NE. Information: 202-248-0301 or www.spookyaction.org.

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