Saturday, August 13, 2016

Dark North & Hungry Jane (The Space on Niddry Street, Edinburgh Fringe)

David Skeele, the writer and director of these two tales of horror all the way from Pennsylvania, says that when fright is done right, it should include "brilliant special effects, psychological suspense and believable performance by actors".

Which is why it's all the more disappointing that Slippery Rock's presentation of Hungry Jane and Dark North fails in much of this. Neither tale is scary, merely spooky. Neither tale has "brilliant special effects" - a rocking chair which rocks itself would be unsettling if the motor and wire which powered it were not so visible. And although there's undeniable mystery in the stories presented, there is very little suspense generated in what is a sadly under-powered production.

It's a real shame, because Skeele's stories are good, strong stuff, involving spirit babies and vengeful serial killers. Skeele, an expert in the horror genre and a professor of theatre at Slippery Rock University, also believes that a horror production that isn't scary is like a comedy production that isn't funny, but he is sadly hoist by his own petard here.

Dark North and its support play Hungry Jane were first performed at the university's arts festival in April, and maybe there were the resources available on campus to make the plays more effective. But this presentation for the Fringe lacks any attempt to create an atmosphere and fails to unsettle the audience. The lighting is blanket bright most of the time, with no attempt to cast shadow or create dark corners which are so important to conjuring atmosphere. Only at the very end, when red bulbs or gels are used to symbolise blood, is lighting used in any effective way.

A publicity picture for Dark North
The various young performers are perfectly adequate in their execution. Some might seem a little rigid or stagy at times, but their investment in the work is plain. There are nicely naturalistic turns from Emily Daning and Ally Kryll as sisters Taylor and Kristin Zelthausen in Dark North, and Rebecca McGann's nerve-shredded Shirley in Hungry Jane has a true vulnerability. However, the presentation of the Zelthausens as some ersatz Addams Family (there's a Wednesday and a Pugsley and a Grandma) undermines the play itself by serving as a constant visual reminder that this could all be so much better.

At the heart of the production, however, are the stories, and Skeele has written two very spooky, unnerving pieces. His knowledge of the genre shows through. However, the stories are not served well by his production, and it would be fascinating to see a film director with insight into the genre get hold of these tales and give them the atmospheric oomph they need (this potential is hinted at in the plays' trailer - see below).

As it is, the stories might be better served as prose rather than theatre, as this staging is unfortunately the very thing Skeele refers to - a horror that isn't scary.

The stats
Writer and director: David Skeele
Dark North
Cast: Joe Karl (Daniel Dark North); Kaitlin Cliber (Genevieve); Alex Sharo (Zelthausen); Ally Kryll (Kristin); Emily Daning (Taylor); Phillip Bova (Neal); Erin Ritson (Margaret)
Hungry Jane
Cast: Cole Vecchio (Kyle); Rebecca McGann (Shirley)
Performed at The Space on Niddry Street (Lower) August 5th to 13th (not 7th), 2016. Performance reviewed: August 12th, 2016

Slippery Rock Theatre on Facebook (retrieved Aug 12 2016)
Interview with David Skeele (retrieved Aug 13 2016)

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Did you see the show too? I'd love to hear your feedback!