By Eric J. Grimm
Who’s more terrifying: the monster or its victims? Playwright and director Julia Jarcho, here paying tribute to Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, takes on the theme of most major monster stories of the last five-or-so centuries and, never fear, she’ll answer the question in a tidy, melancholic monologue at the end of her new horror comedy, The Terrifying. What she won’t do is scare you or make you laugh, though the production frequently tries to do both, pummeling you with a seat-rattling sound design and often goofy humor.
The titular “Terrifying” is a malevolent force that’s brutally murdering teenagers in a small village. The would-be victims also have to contend with men (all played by Pete Simpson) who have their own violent and sexual proclivities. Annalise (Kim Gainer) is most vulnerable to attacks from monsters and men as she experiences a sexual awakening and a desire to abandon village life. Simpson, who appears in almost every scene, puts forth three distinct characterizations, but they’re all buffoonish caricatures, winking at the audience and encouraging them to laugh at these absurd predators. Gainer is the most restrained of the company and keeps the production afloat as she effectively communicates Annalise’s dread and curiosity. When she scans the stage with nervous and excited eyes, you briefly believe that monsters are lurking.
The production’s technical flourishes and stage setup have merits on their own, but the mood of the script is too dizzy to support them. The audience sits at the back of the stage of Abrons’ Playhouse facing a scrim that separates the stage from the house. When the auditorium of seats is revealed as a sort of limbo, it makes for some attractive stage pictures but it loses its novelty as the set extension is mainly used for silly, nightmarish breaks from the main narrative that echo David Lynch if he were operating at half-speed. With limited seating mere feet from the actors, the intimate setup doesn’t work in this large-scale tech-heavy monster story where much of the dialogue is shouted. The monster may not be seen, but it is heard through Ben Williams impressive and overbearing sound design, which booms, snarls, and gobbles. All of it is a sensory overload and too much fuss for a messy commentary on how monsters come in all shapes and sizes.
The Terrifying is playing at Abrons Art Center (466 Grand Street) through April 2nd. For tickets, visit http://www.abronsartscenter.org/on-stage/shows/minor-theater-terrifying-world-premiere/.
Photos by Marina McClure