Two tales of horror in the FSU/Asolo Conservatory's The Mystery Plays.
By Kay Kipling
For FSU/Asolo Conservatory audiences, this time of year has lately provided not only the first opportunity to see most of the second-year MFA students in action onstage, it’s also provided a few Halloween chills. Murder by Poe was the Conservatory’s opening production a couple of seasons ago; this time around it’s Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s The Mystery Plays—two one-act plays with a theme of traveling between two worlds.
The first journey, The Filmmaker’s Mystery, takes place initially on a train headed south to Virginia from New York. A young director (well, with one film to his credit) is headed home for the Christmas holidays and strikes up a conversation with his seatmate, a friendly and apparently successful neurologist; before much time elapses, they’ve made plans to meet for brunch on New Year’s Day. But then the mystery begins: The director feels himself inexplicably called to step off the train at a station, and the train goes on to explode, killing all aboard. Haunted by survivor guilt, he’s also haunted by something more: the ghost of his seatmate, whose story is much darker and more complicated than the one he had told.
Kenneth Stellingwerf and Dane Dandrige Clark in The Mystery Plays.
The second piece, Ghost Children, tells the tale of a young lawyer (who happens to be acquainted with the filmmaker), who’s also headed home, this time to a small Oregon town, again around the holidays. But this is no happy homecoming: 16 years earlier, a horrific triple murder (of her parents and sister) changed her life forever, and now her older brother—the murderer—is asking for her help from prison. Can she step back into the abyss of that awful night of the killings and somehow find it in herself to forgive him?
The playwright sprinkles both works (especially the first) with names and allusions fans of horror will appreciate; there are nods to the works of writer H.P. Lovecraft, the classic Hitchcock film Strangers on a Train, etc. And as the title of the production suggests, he’s also looking back to an older tradition: the medieval mystery plays where issues of death, redemption and sin are addressed. But he has his own more contemporary style, too; and whenever the subject matter or the tone feels that it’s becoming too portentous, he leavens it with unexpected humor or a shift in direction.
Under Greg Leaming’s direction, the ensemble Conservatory cast slips convincingly from playing one character to another, with age discrepancies not causing any serious distraction. Dane Dandrige Clark as the film maker and Kim Hausler as the sister in search of peace have the most prominent roles, but there are also good turns by Kenneth Stellingwerf as the stranger on the train and Angela Sauer as a hard-boiled, fast-talking agent (is there any other kind?)
You may find the first play more scary; the second more emotionally involving. But each is intriguing—shall we even say haunting?—in its way. The Mystery Plays continues through Nov. 15 at the Cook Theatre; call 351-8000 or go to asolo.org.