nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
December 1, 2005
I think watching Apparition is supposed to feel like a nightmare: a sequence of things you can’t really explain, each one more unsettling—though for no good reason—than the next: strange creatures in shadows, weird noises in the corners, and definitely beasties under the bed. And there were moments when a genuine shudder did run down my spine. Unfortunately, there were far more moments when confusion was simply confusion, frustration, and impatience.
There’s not a single story here, but rather a series of vignettes—some choral recitations, some monologues, some more traditionally constructed scenes—performed by an ensemble of five actors in vaguely Victorian clothes. (Christal Weatherby’s elegantly tattered, gray-and-black costumes make the ensemble look like Edward Gorey drawings.) Sometimes the actors sit at music stands and read; sometimes they seem to be collectively telling a campfire story. Much of the time, they are in complete darkness, or a vague, grey light that presents only silhouettes. Sections of the play involve the retelling of the plot of Macbeth, in evocative detail but without any names. Some of the stories involve weird occurrences in daily life that disturb more than they should—a drink that disappears from an otherwise empty room; hearing pounding on your door in a new place in the middle of the night.
As you may be able to tell from the above paragraph, I didn’t really understand what was going on, a lot of the time. Or, more precisely—I understood what was happening internally within each section, but I never really got a sense of how the sections fit together, why they were presented to me, or how I was supposed to engage with them. I felt like I was supposed to be having a genuinely terrifying nightmare, but instead I was having one of those puzzling but not exactly scary dreams where suddenly everyone is speaking in a language you don’t understand. This was an extremely frustrating experience, perhaps more so because so many of the involved artists are people whose work has impressed me in the past.
There seem to me to be two problems here—one of conception, one of execution. The first is that it’s really hard to construct a nightmare-scape that scares everyone, without resorting to horror-film blood and gore—the most truly unsettling dreams are the ones that arise within the individual psyche and don’t contain elements that would necessarily be scary to anyone but the dreamer. I think it’s that kind of imagery and feeling that playwright Anne Washburn and director Les Waters are trying to tap into—but I think it’s almost impossible to hit the night terrors of a whole audience at once.
So how do you execute this challenging task? Waters, Washburn, and their team of designers seem to be trying to tell a story about feeling scared, or perhaps showing an audience how to feel scared, instead of actually scaring us. Washburn’s script feels overly wordy; it narrates every twist and turn in the consciousness of the person having the unsettling experience. Darron L. West’s clever soundscape does create tension, but feels almost like a movie score in the way it telegraphs the emotions a scene is meant to evoke. Andromache Chalfant’s blasted-apart set creates a decaying no-man’s land inside the Connelly Theatre’s elegant proscenium. Jane Cox uses deliberately ugly—or completely absent—lighting to harshen and obscure the action. Waters’s staging is deliberately static and flat, so that none of the performers really interact.
The performances are mannered and stylized, too—the ensemble (Maria Dizzia, Emily Donahoe, David Andrew McMahon, Garrett Neergaard, T. Ryder Smith) seems to relish the complexity of the language but often the actors seem bemused by, rather than involved in, the stories they tell.
I can’t help thinking that Apparition might be much more effective if it were much less elaborate—if more were left to the power of suggestion. Told in a small dark room with a few candles and the occasional unexplained footstep in the background, some of these stories might be genuinely unsettling, and the overall randomness might take on the quality of a dream. But the piece as it was presented never worked for me, especially in a proscenium theater, with elaborate production values.