Two Terrors On The Fringe: “Ghost Light” At The Underground Theater, “D Is For Dog” at the Hudson Mainstage

Theater of the Creepy Is Alive And Well At Hollywood Fringe Festival 2012. This year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival is highlighted by two eerie selections, The Visceral Company’s “Ghost Light” (playing at the Underground Theater) and Rogue Artists’ Ensemble’s “D Is For Dog” (playing at the Hudson Mainstage). Each offers a distinctive journey into the hackle-raising and the thought-provoking, so let’s take a look at them both, shall we?


"Ghost Light" poster

Ghost Light” is a small, intimate black-box one-act play set in a small, intimate black-box theater. To be more specific, it’s set in the late hours of a stormy Halloween night as four college students break into the old facilities of a university theater class to enjoy some weed, beer and sex. Kelly (Stacy Snyder) is the only one in a costume (your usual “sexy fill-in-the-blank” costume), her date Josh (Ross Petrarca) is already a little buzzed, and smartass Mike (Curtiss Johns) and mystery girl Julia (Stefani Davis) are the instigator and the most intimidated, respectively. Through some funny (though initially a little stiff) dialogue and lightly limned characters, we’re introduced to the quartet and the tradition of haunted theaters with an atmospheric homage to the classic but cheesy horror films of the ‘80s and later. (It’s not for nothing that this 2012 production mentions that the inciting incidents happened “25 years ago” in 1987, or that one character name-checks the Z-grade B-film “Eerie Midnight Horror Show” as an organic part of their conversation.) It seems that years ago, a twisted theater student was tormented beyond his limit, but when he died the authorities discovered a secret cache of corpses in his residence. And now they say he haunts the theater, despite the “ghost light” kept burning onstage in the off-hours. And wouldn’t you know it, there’s no cell phone reception in the theater when these college kids need it most?

The actors (under director John B. McCormick) deliver more depth than these archetypes would get on the screen, and the script by Dan Spurgeon is multilayered, with a few surprises along the way. As always, Visceral Company turns in sterling sound design, and the lighting design is inextricably linked with the top-notch blocking that makes the very most of the limited space. It’s a minimalist production, so don’t expect helicopters from the ceiling, but do expect a knockout climax.


"D Is For Dog" Poster

The bigger-budgeted “D Is For Dog” creeps on your nerves like a good TWILIGHT ZONE episode, with echoes of films like A BOY AND HIS DOG, PLEASANTVILLE, BRAVE NEW WORLD, FIDO and novels like Matheson’s I Am Legend. Playwright Katie Polebaum’s scenic design and Kerry Hennessy’s costumes perfectly support the cast’s super-chipper, cartoonish mid-century 1950s-esque stylings.

The actors in the central roles of the show’s nuclear family, the Rogers clan, do a good job of selling the material. They’re required to take characters from a two-dimensional state—shaped by the images and ideas of old educational films, sitcoms, cartoons, advertising, educational materials, etc.—and humanize them. They do a good job of it, particularly Nona Silvers as Mrs. Rogers, who never quite makes the full transition on the outside but seems to have already shattered on the inside well before the conclusion of the story. Guy Birtwhistle and Michael Scott Allen also turn in sympathetic, credible performances, while Taylor Coffman’s Jane is an above-average turn as a little girl (both she and Allen play seven-year-olds, and Coffman in particular seems to have done a lot of research—her little girl character sounds very real!). All the cast have done well at finding the pathos in these simple, silly characters and in exploring the fun in dialogue that’s intentionally ripe with product names and ad copy.

The story of “D Is For Dog” is a science-fictional take on the things we do to live normally when normalcy is dead. It doesn’t take long for the audience to pick up on the fact that no matter how much the intentionally vague period setting (ostensibly 1955) may resemble an imaginary suburban world, things are only a shadow of what they should be. From amusingly postapocalyptic home schooling to pills laid out like spices in a rack and used for every eventuality, the world of “D Is For Dog” telescopes time and consumerism alike to show us a rapid spiral into bright, sunny hell. Advertised as a comedy, it’s more unhappy at its core than funny (or am I simply predisposed to like these kinds of cardboard characters and pity them?). But that’s fitting for a two-act play examining necessity vs. custom, artifice vs. nature, dreams vs. reality, the breakdown of order, haves and have nots, the veneer of civilization vs. brutal need, and ultimately—quantity of life vs. quality of life.

If there’s a notable flaw with the play and its production, it lies in its unique and delightful experiment with puppetry. Although the puppets used in the show (created and operated by a bunch of very talented people) are effective and really push the creep factor over the edge, the actors doing the puppetry are not the strongest possible choices for non-puppet work. However, some directorial polish from Sean T. Cawelti could make all the difference. This is a very minor flaw, though, as the puppet performances are just fine in and of themselves—it’s the doubling-up in a secondary role that doesn’t quite work. “D Is For Dog” is dark and often fitfully funny, and well worth your time.

Ghost Light” plays at the Hudson Mainstage through TONIGHT (Friday, June 22) and “D Is For Dog” plays at the Underground Theater through August 4.