Part of the problem with the first episode of the Blood Rose Rising series may be signs of the show’s indecisive intent: is it a comic thriller spoof, a scary horror mystery, or a serious drama about relationships and spirituality?
Immaterial Girl (episode 1 of the Blood Rose Rising series). Written by Ben Evett and Steven Barkhimer. Co-produced by Georgia Lyman. Co-directed by Jess Ernst. Video consulting by Casey Preston. Magic consulting by Wally Napier. Lighting design by PJ Strachman. At Naga, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA, through November 9 (in repertory), 21+.
By Alyssa Hall.
“A multimedia supernatural experience.” “A romantic thriller presented in a dynamic nightclub environment.” “A multi-faceted social event.” The Blood Rose Rising series bills itself as many things in an attempt to become, in the words of creator Ben Evett, a popular, Boston-area theater phenomenon in the tradition of Blue Man Group and Sheer Madness. Immaterial Girl, the first episode in the three-part fall series, offers some tantalizing glimpses of the considerable amounts of creepiness, humor, and technological inventiveness that’s going to be needed to transform this “miniseries” into must-see theater.
In this episode, incompetent professor Robert Blackwood (Michael Fisher the night I attended) inherits a bedeviled Cambridge house from his estranged (and deranged) rich father. Inside the home, he discovers the ghost of Rose (Poornima Kirby), temporarily restored to ‘life’ because of an accidental act of bloodshed. Her spirit is a link to the Blackwood family’s mystifying history. Meanwhile, Robert’s go-getter girlfriend, Olivia Barlow (Dakota Shepard), is running for the House of Representatives, though she is not too busy rounding up votes to become suspicious of Robert’s increasingly strange behavior.
Naga nightclub in Central Square provides an excellent setting for this intimate, cabaret-friendly spooky tale. The small, dim space is cozy but not crowded. The club’s free signature drink and the availability of appetizers before the start of the show encourage a relaxing, social event vibe, as does the sound of Alchemilla, the live rock band (tucked into a corner stage right) with the smoothly haunting vocals (Transparency Note: Kat Burke, who writes on rock music for The Fuse, is a member of this band.)
An arc of comfortable seating takes up the middle of Naga’s black and gray interior and the club’s bar on the back wall functions as the set for selected scenes. The long projection screen on the front wall handles the rest of the multimedia set duties, displaying an array of static images of scene locations or abstract, mood enhancing pictures. In addition, videos of characters and objects interact with the actors in the theater.
Most of the action occurs in front of this screen or at the back bar, and the directors could take greater advantage of the other areas of the space, like the middle, sides, and different height levels, to invite audience interaction and generate more visual interest. It must be noted that viewing the back bar scenes requires some awkward twisting. Still, since the most interesting multimedia elements are pulled off in viewable fashion in front of the front screen anyway, the workout is easily forgiven.
The production makes creative use of the screen in a number of striking ways. Whenever Robert receives a text or phone call his screen pops up giant-sized so the audience can read the amusing text. Ditching the normally dry exposition that afflicts horror tales, here, via a video, a Cambridge walking-tour guide takes the audience through the city, bringing us to the spellbound Blackwood manse. Instances of prestidigitation also make this theater piece different: Robert’s sarcastic point about the horrors of home renovation is driven home (literally) when we see him pierce a metal rod through his tongue. The problem is that not all of Immaterial Girl‘s stabs at startling supernatural or magical moments are as successful.
Although the zingy jokes, funny local references, and inventive visual gags, such as the tongue piercing trick, fly high in the comedy scenes, the dialogue tends to drag the show down to earth, particularly in the more would-be dramatic moments. For example, there’s no need to narrate actions or emotions (along the lines of “what’s going on?” and “I don’t understand”) when the actors are already conveying them physically.
Characters are (predictably?) one-dimensional clichés (Bud, the dumb jock student; Olivia, the domineering, plucky politician). The few figures with some depth, such as Robert, make some baffling, seemingly out-of-character decisions just to advance the eerie plot. The latter spends the first half upset by an accidental bloodletting early in the show. When Robert confronts intruders in the basement later, however, he schizophrenically jumps from being scared to an inexplicable calmness, encouraging the interlopers to leave. He then murders one with glee when Rose appears. Either he is obsessed with resurrecting Rose (with whom he’s had only one extremely brief and disjointed conversation) or he has gone insane with no earlier indication of mental illness. Neither explanation seems logical or psychologically plausible. Ghost stories have to play fair—if anything goes, nothing surprises.
The problem with Robert may be symptomatic of the show’s indecisive artistic/entertainment intent: is it a comic thriller spoof, a scary horror mystery, or a serious drama about relationships and spirituality? All three alternatives pop up as possibilities in different scenes. Switching among them, without rhyme or reason, leaves the audience baffled about how to react. Laugh? Cry? Scream? The stereotypical characters and goofball dialogue become confusing, rather than intriguing, when they are played straight. Immaterial Girl might become a brilliant spoof—if it was played consistently for amusement.
Effective horror direction creates some genuinely creepy moments. Rose, in her white and tattered Victorian gown, jerks about like a broken marionette when insubstantial. A little boy chants in singsong over dream-like video images of the haunted house’s violent history, screams echoing in the background. Then there’s Calvin Braxton, brilliantly playing an enigmatic insane man strapped upside down into a rickety, wheeled chair contraption in the basement, whimpering and muttering hysterically nonsensical things. He elicits pity and unease until he suddenly looms menacingly in front of us, shockingly unhinged.
The cast members do the best they can with what they are given, and Braxton exemplifies how the actors playing the minor characters manage to bring extra depth to their roles. Lynn Guerra stands out as the indignant student, Sharon, who challenges Robert’s teaching methods with fierce aggression but suggests an underlying air of loneliness and longing for a connection (possibly explored further in episode 2 . . .). She and Victor Shopov also intrigue and delight as the “Finder and Seeker” couple Mr. and Mrs. Urbeutel, a foreign twosome that could have stepped out a Neil Gaiman novel, given their vaguely German accents, quirky mannerisms, and unseemly interest in the house.
Although each episode is advertised as being stand-alone, almost nothing is resolved at the end of Immaterial Girl. And that is not a bad thing. Despite the production’s dramatic shortcomings, there’s enough magic, mystery, and multimedia entertainment here to suggest the enormous potential for over-the-top spine-tingling fun in this playful approach—there is plenty here to entice viewers to come back and experience the next chapters in the saga. The three episodes will play in repertory with a rotating cast, with Episode 2, Heir of Suspicion, opening on September 28 and Episode 3, Futile Attraction, opening on October 12.