Play, Company Don't Capitalize On a Solid First Act and Cozy Performance Space
Like the theater in which it takes place, Watch, a Haunting is marked by modest but genuine achievement and much greater potential. There are moments when the play catches fire in a smart, imaginative monologue written by Molly Rice and delivered by star Cristina Petrarca. When Petrarca, who plays the young girl VI, starts riffing to her psychiatrist (Steve Bradford) about the homeless girl who visits her every night, how the homeless are treated in Oliver Twist, and how she herself likes to sleep in cars, it's easy to be carried away by the nuclear chain reaction of her thoughts. It's a great moment, even if Rice and local director Lynn Morton are never quite able to link up such scenes into a cogent narrative.
Watch, a Haunting is being produced by the Strand Theater Company, which in April took up residence in its storefront space a block north of the Charles and Everyman theaters. You walk in through an iron grill, between two display windows, through a wooden screen, and into a long, story-and-a-half room with a balcony in the rear. Beneath three large white-bowl lamps, straight-back wooden chairs are scattered all around the five modular risers that constitute the stage. If you sit in the front row, your knees nearly brush the stage.
This intimacy is potentially the Strand's greatest asset, even if the theater hasn't yet learned to take full advantage of it. In the new production both the prerecorded music and the cast's voices were too loud, as if they were playing in a 300-seat proscenium stage rather than in a small room with a few dozen chairs. When the actors did trust a small gesture--the way Petrarca pushed her glasses up her nose or straightened her pajamas--or a small voice--as when Bradford, reviewing the videotape of VI's session, chuckled, "The guys are going to love this"--the effect was powerful.
Director Morton was smart enough to go without a set and to keep the props to a minimum. The show begins with VI and her school pal Jenny (Caitlin Bouxsein) beneath blankets, asleep on the risers. They're soon awake, speculating on the strange noises in the house, wondering what kind of beings might be lurking in the walls. VI often awakes in the night with such thoughts, a habit that drives her mother, Mona (Freda Mohr), to despair, drives away the freaked-out Jenny, and leads to the sessions with the psychiatrist. With Jenny gone, it's not surprising that VI acquires an imaginary friend named Renata (Lucia Diaz-French), a homeless teenager that Mona can't see.
VI's age isn't specified, but she seems to be a middle-schooler on the precipice of puberty. Rice finds an apt metaphor for those stirring hormones in the elephant. VI has a stuffed elephant that she plays with at home and in the psychiatrist's office; her monologues often go off on witty tangents about circus elephants getting director's notes on their performances. Renata is told that VI's father is off in China riding elephants. VI suspects, however, that her absent father is buried beneath the floor boards in the family basement. That's why she won't open the basement door.
Rice has written a terrific first act for a show about a young girl who displaces her anxiety about a missing father onto imaginary friends, hiding ghosts, and stuffed animals. And the cast, especially the vibrant Petrarca and the sly Diaz-French, draw us into this situation. Unfortunately, Rice has problems with the linkage of scene to scene, and the transitions are often jarring. You keep waiting for Renata to be discussed in the waking world or for Mona to mention her departed partner, but it never happens.
More crucially, Rice hasn't written a second act. She sticks a single scene on the end of the first act that yields a clumsy, unsatisfying climax. As a result, the one-act play is only 70 minutes long. No wonder the theater felt no need to apologize when the show started more than 20 minutes late.
You leave the theater wishing that more of the evening's potential had been realized. That Rice had written a second act to go with her fine first act. That Morton had better exploited the close quarters of the space. That the cast had better hinted at the feelings they were repressing. That the Strand had provided better sightlines, more comfortable chairs, and stricter starting times. There's no reason all of that can't happen in the near future.
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