While mulling over Playlist’s slate for the Halloween season, it occurred to me that I’ve never been genuinely terrified while watching a play. Maybe I’ve just never seen the right show – and this is entirely possible – but there’s something about the live theater experience that doesn’t quite feed my fear impulses the way a legitimately scary movie or novel does. Part of that has to do with the physical differences between those media: special effects, camera work and editing allow horror films to pull off scares that would be near impossible to replicate on stage, and books have no constraints on their depravities other than the author’s imagination. Theatrical productions just don’t have as many shortcuts at their disposal, and so the threshold is set considerably higher.
Anyway, I’ve decided I want to remedy this. I want to get scared in a theater. (I’m talking at least semi-traditional stage productions here. I’d certainly classify something like Soap Factory’s Haunted Basement as theater, but they’re obviously painting from a different palette.) So I’m taking it upon myself to see some of the scene’s most reputedly creepy shows this season. First up: Workhaus Collective’s production of The Hollow at The Playwrights’ Center.
There’s a lot of sound in The Hollow. Hammers pound behind the stage, children chatter in the wings, voodoo incantations blare from a phonograph and water drips seep into the periphery from every direction. There’s scarcely a moment when there isn’t some kind of sound bleeding into the proceedings, creating an off-kilter buzz of sonic torment that would do Edgar Allan Poe proud. Much of that sound has little direct impact on the narrative, but it has everything to do with the atmosphere, and when it comes to onstage horror atmosphere is at least half the battle.
Atmosphere has a lot riding on its shoulders in The Hollow. While Christina Ham’s script is engaging, funny and peppered with striking turns of phrase, the story is a good old-fashoned potboiler. When a wild child heiress’ sickly brother goes missing, she and her skeevy husband converge on her estranged family’s crumbling New Orleans mansion looking to cash in. Standing in their way is the family’s taciturn Creole nanny/housekeeper, who may be working a few angles of her own. I’d never fault a production for following a familiar plot, but if that’s your game, the presentation had better be able to carry you.
All of the characters in The Hollow are handed enough juicy lines and spooky situations that I have to credit the cast and director Hayley Finn for resisting the temptation to go over the top. Pearce Bunting in particular gets plenty of chances to rant and rave as a drug-addled hood fighting through all manner of personal demons. It’s the showiest part in the play and he rather nails it, exuding a sleazy charisma that can’t quite cover up a core of earnest vulnerability.
Bunting’s chemistry with Miriam Schwartz’s rich-girl-gone-bad is essential to the play’s impact, and the two do a fine job of inhabiting a pair of inveterate fuck-ups trying like hell to convince themselves that they’ve finally found something they can’t fuck up. Signe Harriday has perhaps the most challenging role, in that she’s playing a character that could easily slide into a stereotyped cliché (the wise, mysterious, voodoo-dabbling Creole woman). Fortunately Ham’s script and Harriday’s acting are respectively sharp and subtle enough to create a flesh-and-blood character who runs as deep as anyone in the play.
So we’ve established that The Hollow is a well-written, skillfully acted, impressively atmospheric production. But is it scary? Well, it’s definitely spooky. There are moments of genuine dread, usually underscored by that aforementioned sound design – I’m thinking specifically of a heated exchange where two characters dredge up familial ghosts while a rhythmic banging echoes through the room.
Still, there’s nothing here that truly made my skin crawl or my heart race. That’s not a knock on The Hollow, which I liked a lot. I don’t believe that kind of scare is what this play is going for. What I got was an enjoyable, suitably creepy evening at the theater, and I’m grateful for that. Meanwhile my quest for the truly frightening continues. If you have any recommendations, please don’t hesitate to point me in the right direction.