Friday, October 28, 2016

Retro technology and the spirit world: Phoenix Theatre premieres Tom Horan's "Static"

Only people absolutely certain of their rational powers can totally dismiss the reality of ghosts. Lacking such certainty, I'm agnostic to this extent: Experience of "the spirit world" must be granted validity as an alternative way of looking at life.

If you're in full possession of your faculties, such an alternative may present itself to you in moments of vulnerability. Thus, some are more susceptible than others. To anyone else, including those who come to ghost stories for entertainment, a willingness to suspend belief is as useful as the conventional suspension of disbelief.
Walter and Millie engage in a series of tense communication trials.

A complicating factor in Tom Horan's "Static"is the presence of a deranged main character. But the genre allows ghost behavior to be off kilter, and Millie is one of two ghosts painfully revealed to Emma, a young woman who, as the curtain rises (figuratively) at the Phoenix Theatre, is unusually susceptible yet reassuringly sane. Impulsive and tightly wound, she has bought an old house in the neighborhood she grew up in as a surprise for her fiance, Owen, an unusually flexible fellow willing to accept this as their new home.

Jeffery Martin's set brings a well-organized but suspiciously manic milieu to the couple's task of clearing the place out. The walls are cluttered with framed photos, post cards, stuffed animals crowded along a lintel, some vintage barometers— a mind-boggling assortment of things belonging to the previous residents, Walter and Millie, who died there mysteriously with all their stuff in place.

With his suspenseful alternation of present and past planes of action (about 20 years apart), Horan presents us with the methodical Walter, gingerly managing his disturbed wife and curating the couple's collections, and sets that relationship alongside Emma's tense curiosity about the contents of the home she intends to share with the skeptical but patient Owen.

Bill Simmons' direction puts a premium on the animating mystery. It's a quiet play, on the whole, and pauses in the dialogue echo the script's scrutiny of how we communicate, especially when the gaps are partly connected to technological glitches. Emma's cellphone contact with Owen when she's working alone in the house suffers interruptions, but those pale beside the episodes of static in the cassette tapes she's going through, including some crucially incomplete dialogue between Walter and Millie. The latter holes in the taped archive derive from Millie's traumatic muteness. Only the matching of the right Walter tape with the right Millie journal achieves a breakthrough.

A quest deeper than normal: Emma's persistence wins over Owen.
As seen opening night Thursday, Chelsey Stauffer brings the right edginess and focus to the role of Emma, nicely balanced against Ben Schuetz as Owen's more offhand curiosity and buy-in  to his fiancee's project. Jolene Mentink Moffat achieves a tour-de-force of wordless three-dimensionality as Millie; one scene where her eyes widen in horrified recognition chills me even now as I recall it. Rich Rand caught the mild-mannered thoroughness and desperate patience of Walter perfectly. In a brief scene as a little girl visiting Walter and Millie, Eliot Simmons was quite convincing.

Lacunae are common in some of the most venerated texts of Western culture: The Dead Sea Scrolls and the works of the Greek poet Sappho are defined in part by what scholars have to supply to make them intelligible. More to the point, indications of suppression, distortion or decay plague modern media, from the 18-and-a-half-minute hole in the Nixon tapes to the current dribs and drabs of sensitive information on the Clinton campaign, the apparent work of maliciously selective Russian hackers. And for many years, documents that reporters pry from government agencies through the Freedom of Information Act are often heavily redacted. The human animal is a relentless censor.

Horan seems to suggest that the way we preserve events is helplessly mired in the selectivity of our media. The basis of Emma's search is the collection of cassette tapes Walter amassed. Many of them capture sounds as painstakingly as the physical objects with which he's cluttered the house. We accept the fact that a recording of a dripping faucet or a tree full of birds is only part of those phenomena in reality. Walter does as well, but he has an agonizing reason for accumulating such evidence. His quest is to wrench Millie from an attachment to things; her fixation stems from a family tragedy cleverly withheld from the audience until near the end. Only proliferation of material evidence can provide a healing distraction, he figures.

"Static" reinforces the notion that our past is inevitably subject to editing. Studies I wish I could cite here have shown that even the memories that seem clearest to us change each time we recall them. We redact our own memories, whether we want to or not. In doing that unconsciously, we create a  host of ghosts. A riddle that Walter poses to the visiting neighbor girl tempts the audience to think in materialistic terms, and we get blocked. The right answer turns out to be immaterial, yet central to everyone's experience. It, too, is a ghost.

It's striking that, instead of blackouts, Bryan Fonseca's lighting design throws a lattice pattern over the set between scenes. Unlike many manmade structures set in context, a lattice creates a regular framework for what lies behind it. The dark pattern of crossed lines is complemented by the light pattern of squares. This echoes visually the poise of the two worlds juxtaposed in this show. Reality is the uneasy yet oddly stable relationship between what lies on the other side of the framework and the framework itself.

Whether or not you "believe in" ghosts now seems beside the point, doesn't it?

[Photos by Zach Rosing]