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Seeing Double

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Bill Stewart and Jonathan Polgar in the scene They Fell from the play Almost, Maine.<br/>
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Joan Haley and Mike Haley perform a scene from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe<br/>
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Mary Kearney and Troy David Mercier in the scene That Hurts from Almost, Maine.<br/>
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Joan Haley and Mike Haley perform a scene from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe<br/>

By DON STEWART


It’s an eerie evening in Holyoke with the half moon capsized by a sea of clouds. Street lights are frail against the haunting darkness. In the blackness a cat howls. You’re inside a home built in 1845, where a spirit was once sensed and in a room nearby, there’s the gnashing of teeth and beastly sounds.

There are four strangers here. One describes the ghastly experience of viewing a horrifying painting “whose figures were seldom completely human, but often approached humanity in varying degrees. Most of the bodies, while roughly bipedal, had a forward slumping, and a vaguely canine cast.”

The quartet, members of Northampton’s August Company, is undertaking their first reading of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model.” This is in preparation for the upcoming Double Take Fringe Festival, wherein eight buildings will host as many different productions in downtown Greenfield this Friday and Saturday evening. Now in its second year, the event, featuring short stage pieces, or “theater-lite,” is sponsored by Old Deerfield Productions and the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce.

As the actors read Lovecraft’s eerie description of madness, a background effect of gnashing and growling is provided by Scout, a Corgi-Golden Retriever and Paul, a Boston Terrier, at play in the next room. The real terror is just outside, just a few breaths away from the front door, as motorists on Route 5 speed wildly past this house.

Voices in a darkened room

The August Company, now in its third year, will present four festival performances of “Onward: Terror,” with two Lovecraft stories adapted by Holyoke’s Liesel de Boor. Before the reading she noted that company members had been impressed two years earlier when Easthampton resident Steve Angel read Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” They’ve since adapted several short stories from that period for theatrical performances known as the “Onward” series.

“Steve is really passionate for this era of writing ... Poe and Lovecraft,” de Boor noted. “He said all the writing at this time is rich in descriptive language. All of it is luscious.”

Angel and deBoor were joined in the reading by Dennis Quinn of Springfield and M. James Perry of Abington. The August Company performances will include three other actors in Lovecraft’s “The Picture in the House.”

To maintain a sophisticated level of proper spookiness, there’s the suggestion that attendees bring sleeping bags or foam pads. With the audience in a semicircle, you’ll only hear the voices of the actors, as you look upon a darkened room.

“It’s really the idea of a radio play,” Angel said.

To that end, ambient sound, from the clinking of glasses to the noise of a subway in Lovecraft’s 1920s Boston, will be important.

“We want to make sure that when the sounds come in, they’re not jarring,” deBoor said, “but they’re definitely a fourth character in the piece.”

H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) didn’t just bring fame to Pascoag, R.I., with “The Horror at Red Hook,” novelist Stephen King has said that the writer’s legacy was a guiding influence in his career.

As to what he hopes audiences will experience from their performance, Angel laughed, and said “I want them to be terrified.”

From Hitchcock to motherhood

Festival suspense of another sort is created by actors under the direction of Leverett resident John Bechtold. In “Crisscross,” you’re invited to solve a mystery and either owning a portable music player or making fast friends with one who does is essential. The downloaded soundtrack, available at the Double Take website, will lead you to several clues within walkable distance.

The play is loosely based upon Patricia Highsmith’s “Strangers on a Train.” The paranoid classic was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951 and, upon viewing, it can still warp your dream life.

Sure, there’s unexpected horror and one-sided murder conspiracies at the festival, however, nothing is more suspenseful than an acting troupe improvising in a live performance. The nine-year-old Northampton-based improvisational group, The HA-HA’s, already a monthly staple at the Arts Bank Cafe, may score high on the yuck-o-meter during their four “Unscripted, Uncensored, Unbelievable” performances at the event.

“(We’re) working without a net,” HA-HA’s founder Pam Victor said recently, speaking from her Pelham home. “We don’t know what we’re going to say. It could be the best show we’ve ever done, it could be the worst. We have no idea.”

Nevertheless, the actors do require a modest scaffolding for quip manufacture. The two improvisations are “Shrink: Where Freud Meets Funny” and “Book Club.”

“The beauty of ‘improv’ is that it teaches you how to conquer your fear, or actually redefine fear, because you’re redefining failure,” Victor said. “If I make a mistake, the audience is going to laugh and really, the goal for us is for you to laugh anyway.”

In another building, for “The Marriage of True Minds,” monologist Josh Platt, a Montague resident, also has a goal of laughter in channeling two 19th-century works. Adapted from “The Dangers of Tobacco,” an 1885 short story by Anton Chekhov, a lecturer provides a monumentally off track, digressive speech that ranges from bedbugs to pancakes before settling on what’s really on his mind. Platt’s own writing merges this comedy with August Strindberg’s 1889 “The Stronger.” In the Swedish playwright’s work, just one of three characters speaks lengthily about a romantic affair and its recriminations. The amalgam offers Platt the opportunity to reflect on the delicate balance of love and marriage.

“I was really drawn to these plays because of the way they deal with single voices and individual characters,” Platt said, speaking from his home. The actor may have been drawn to the 19th century works for the same reason Angel has been entranced by Lovecraft.

“The sense is that older writers and older characters have a vitality to the present that’s really timeless,” he said.”

Motherhood is also persistently timeless. Kelsey Flynn discovered this and much, much more 11 months ago when she gave birth. One of the founding members of the August Company, she has written her own monologue, “Wrath of Mom,” for performances at the downtown Greenfield Community College building.

“It’s a combination of public service announcement, stand-up comedy and a confessional of being a new mom within the first three months of having a baby,” Flynn said, speaking from her Northampton home.

In becoming a mother, the actress experienced a 180-degree epiphany.

“I used to be a huge judge of people with children, new moms, until I became one,” Flynn said. “Then I realized ‘Oh well, this is not easy at all!’”

From Albee to bag boys

Festival attendees may also take in “Al Bee Seeing U.” Northampton resident Maureen McElligott is directing five actors in snippets of three plays by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee. The 84-year-old may be best known for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” a title derived from a scrawl he’d found on the wall of a New York bar. The half-century-old play, currently revived on Broadway, will be among a trio of selections, joined with “The Goat: or, Who is Sylvia?” and “Three Tall Women.”

“I love his take on dysfunctional relationships,” the director said. It’s brilliant, and his writing his brilliant.”

As to what she hopes audiences will experience, McElligott was succinct. “The monologues are on the dark side,” she said, “but the dialogues are delicious. It’ll be great fun.”

Adding to the festival’s humor, Greenfield resident John Reese directs “A Shot in the Heart by Way of the Funny Bone,” eight different scenes drawn from John Cariani’s 2006 off-Broadway production of “Almost, Maine.”

“What I like about the play is that there are comic scenes, but there’s a real edge, not quite a darkness to it,” the director said. “It has something that everyone can relate to. All of the scenes in the play deal with love or love lost.”

Reese said that the thrust of the play is “the humanity of the characters. It’s something that everyone experiences at one point or another. That’s a distinguishing characteristic of it.”

SuperHappyMelancholyExpialidocious” is Bay Stater Seth Lepore’s series of highly polished monologues that range from depicting obnoxious, cliche-ridden therapists to overly conversational grocery store bag boys.

In one brief scene, he explains the networking he’s undertaken in the heretofore unknown fraternity of people with ingrown toenails.

“I don’t know where I’d be without my online friends Judysezyes and Jazzhand51 who supported me anytime I felt that I was slipping away,” notes Lepore, who lives in Westhampton.

If there’s a atmosphere of slight suspense among the various actors, it’s because it’s a festival of moderate stakes, with three cash awards totaling $350. Judges will determine “Best in Show,” “Fringiest” and attendees will vote for their own favorite.

For more information, visit:

www.double-take.org

Don Stewart is a freelance writer who lives in Plainfield. He has written for The Recorder since 1994.

Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at pfranz@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.

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