The Mystery Plays at The Catholic University will send you home with chills and as you walk to your car, or go to catch that last train home – you will certainly be looking over your shoulder to make sure you don’t see ‘The Mystery Man.’ Directed by Sasha Brätt, this show takes two loosely related one-act instances with roots tied in the medieval mystery plays and infuses them with the eerie feeling of modern American suspense thrillers. The show explores the inexplicable topics of how death transcends life, faith and its place in the life and death scheme, and the concept of forgiveness and whether or not it is possible. The play will take you on a journey, just like the characters, and give you the sense that you may have just entered the twilight zone.
Perhaps the most unique and amazing thing about this play is its staging. Rather than have the audience sit in the traditional auditorium, Set Designer Thomas Donahue and Director Sasha Brätt work together to create an unforgettable staged experience. The audience risers are placed on the back of the stage facing out, and a thin black scrim curtain is drawn across the stage separating the play space from the apron of the main stage. This creates a vast space behind the playing space as it stretched out over the entire auditorium. The actors make stunning visual effects happen in this space. During the first act, “Filmmaker’s Mystery” there is a scene that takes Joe (Robert Schumacher) to a ghost train platform. As Schumacher stands there a light from the back of the house rises onto the stage, growing brighter and brighter while coupled with the sound of the oncoming train, until finally the house fills with mist, which starts rolling up onto the stage and from the top of the house, down through the aisle, comes a ghost who then appears beside him on the stage. The effect is stunning and more than chilling. A similar use of the external house happens in act II when Abby (Stephanie T. McGill) goes to the prison. These clever uses of the house really enhance the overall suspense and spine-tingling sensations that the play delivers to the audience.
The moments of dark excitement do not stop simply with the imaginative use of the stage. Sound Designer Christopher Bain creates moments of heart-stopping chills with his orchestrations throughout the show. From the moment the audience enters the stage their ears are met with the sound of whistling wind; striking up to a feverish pitch of a howl or groan only to die back down, leaving you wondering if it was the wind you heard— or even if you heard anything at all. Bain composes an orchestration which is used at the beginning of the show, at the start of intermission, and at the end of the show to really help set the mysterious mood. It is haunting yet exciting, and bubbles on the edge of those familiar horror tunes from classic movies of the genre; it is familiar yet foreign and sets the nerves on edge from the beginning.
Coupled with Lighting Designer JP Woodey, Bain works with Brätt to create an epic opening to the show. People fill the stage, moving quickly to the beat of their own agendas, caught up in their cell phones, gazing at the floor, trapped in their own bubbles. The Mystery Man (Philip Dickerson) steps forward through the throng and begins to introduce the show, a monologue akin to the introduction you might here before a segment of The Twilight Zone. And suddenly the lights flash, a chime is heard and the motion on stage is plunged into almost stillness, slow motion now governing the once hasty crowd, a tight spotlight highlighting Dickerson. This stunning moment alone makes the show worth seeing.
There are three main actors who really captivate the attention of the audience. Their stories speak to generations of people both young and old and are timeless despite the time that frames certain aspects of the stories. We first meet Joe (Robert Schumacher) as the filmmaker on a train home for Christmas. His encounters on the train with Nathan (Theo Dewez) are delightfully awkward. Schumacher really exudes that uncertainty and shyness when first getting to know an attractive stranger. As his journey progresses we find that Schumacher is a talented story teller, the words echoing from his lips as if he is recalling them for the first time. He becomes overwhelmed almost possessed by a harrowing truth, letting this notion radiate through his body, his voice and physicality matching the expressed emotion in that moment.
His counterpart, the main character of the second act, Abby (Stephanie T. McGill) is an equally good story teller. McGill appears to be constantly lost in her dreamlike remembrance; like a shadow of a girl drifting through memories long since past. Maintaining this state throughout the show makes are almost like the ghost children of which she speaks. McGill’s emotional dam erupts once with the lawyers, sixteen years of pent up emotions flowing from her in a short string of words accentuated by piercing gazes and clearly articulated gestures.
But ‘The Mystery Man’ (Philip Dickerson) is perhaps the most haunting character of all. He floats throughout the show as many characters but none as poignant as the man who is simply there. Donned in all black with a fedora to obscure his face Dickerson speaks of the mysteries of life, telling the tales; acting like the light at the end of the tunnel or perhaps the dark cloud as it closes over you. He is beyond creepy, ever present in scenes even when he not there; sometimes just a glimpse of his face floating the shadows, or the slight movement has he floats behind the scrim. Dickerson does not speak monotone but his voice is crafted in such a way that it leaves chills running up your spine, and before you know it, you’ll be looking over your shoulder to see if he’s there.
A stunning recreation of suspense and mystery is to be found in this showing of The Mystery Plays, and if you are intrigued by the unknown – this is the play for you.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with 1 intermission.
The Mystery Plays play through February 26, 2012 at The Catholic University’s The Hartke Theatre – 3801 Harewood Road, NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 319-4000, or purchase them online.