Dallas — Death, uneasiness and abuse pervade Shadow Woman, a new play by Claire Carson, who has recently joined the leadership team at House Party Theatre (HPT) as director of operations, along with Brady Stebleton. With the world premiere of this play, Carson establishes a suffocating atmosphere that permeates the life of its characters. Publicized as their “brand new horror play” that “will bring to the stage the shock, thrill, and camp featured almost exclusively in the film landscape of the past several decades,” the play occasionally lives up to its promise of thrill and terror, and at points will send shivers across anyone’s body. Horror film radicals should not overlook the tenacious encounter of witnessing a live play when craving that rush so often experienced from watching a horror film.
The premise is promising: Arrah Andrews, a somewhat typical adolescent, moves into a new home with her father after the death of her mother. Arrah, her father, her best friend, Rachel, and her cat Lucifer are all visited by ghosts, a woman and the abusive husband who murdered her, who previously inhabited the house. Throughout the play, Arrah goes to life-defining war on two fronts: a dark struggle against a powerful supernatural presence threatening to destroy her and her family from the inside out, and a simultaneous battle against the package-deal fears that accompany being female in today’s maelstrom of a world. Shadow Woman is an exploration of the human response to the supernatural and a confrontation with the epidemic of intimate partner violence and more broadly, domestic violence.
However, inside of the narrative, the boisterous action—underdeveloped and incomplete—is too often frivolous. The capacity for actual conflict is essentially left uncultivated. The relationship between Arrah and her father could have played a more central role in the conflict and the impact of domestic abuse needs to be further developed within this relationship. Their journey feels rushed, most likely because it isn’t the central conflict and not enough time is given to such an immediate crisis. But Carson deserves credit for tackling such an unexplored genre in theater and creating a story that is frightening and at the same time addresses a serious epidemic in our society: intimate partner violence.
As Arrah, Bella O’Brien has brought to the stage a sympathetic and dynamic character. From the very beginning, she demands attention and sustains it as she takes the audience on her journey, however underdeveloped it may have been. O’Brien is quite believable as Arrah and she wears her journey clearly on her face as she grows more and more desperate. It is fascinating to watch Arrah respond to the trauma that surrounds her. Fortunately, she has Rachel (Dakota Ratliff), Arrah’s neurotic best friend who is always there to support her. She is an eccentric supporting character to Arrah. The distinction between the two best friends is quite clear as they have highly opposing personalities. But their relationship works and they love each other for who they are. Ratliff offers a controlled performance that is fun, energetic and reaches a level of neurosis that offers some much-needed comic relief.
Arrah’s dad is a strong central and necessary character, whose journey was also rather short and mild. Stan Graner gave a less than convincing performance, although he embodies the transition between his normal, calm state and extreme rage quite well. The abusive husband who ignites the father’s rage is completely silent and communicates entirely through movement. The dead woman who inhabits Arrah’s new home, the Shadow Woman, is severely abused by her husband during numerous incidents. Hannah Weir ultimately struggles to internalize the life and emotions of a severely battered wife. Much of her speech feels forced and she seems to re-present to the audience some stereotypical sounds and speech patterns that might sound like a battered woman. Every day Arrah is hassled by her math teacher, Mr. Manobla, played by Nicholas Riley. Much of Mr. Manobla’s action is communicated through movement. If he is speaking, much of the time his speech is actually the thoughts of Arrah. Movement is essential to playing this character and Riley struggles to get the rhythms of the play right.
Lucifer, Arrah’s cat, played by Gracie Cuny, was absorbing, although something did seem to be missing. It is unclear what the purpose of Lucifer’s character is. The cat can be much more in this play. Lucifer has the potential to be one of the most interesting characters in the story, but falls short in the end. Cuny is elegant in her movement and wholly embodies the personality and body language of a cat. Lucifer is always present and always watching, yet most of the characters hardly notice her existence.
Jenna Richanne Hannum, the director, makes movement an integral facet of this production. All of the characters, at one point or another, engage in highly stylized body movements to indicate a variety of concepts. Overall, the movement, an ongoing device used in the play, was, at times, sentimental and overly staged. Incorporating significant amounts of movement into a drama is a precarious task, and Carson and Hannum made the decision to make this device central to the progression of the play. The most interesting movement scene is during the first act, when the ghost begins to beat his wife, but the interplay is disguised as a dance. The movement does indicate violence and the attempt is intriguing, but the follow through is abundant in mediocrity. The directing as a whole is attentive and meaningful.
The underground space at the Bath House Cultural Center is an interesting and appropriate place for this production. Hannum designs a simple, yet purposeful set. It certainly puts into practice the concept of Chekhov’s Gun: "One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off. It's wrong to make promises you don't mean to keep." Every prop, every piece of furniture and every door is used and engaged with. The design integrates with the space well and the creepy music preceding the play certainly helps to establish the mood. Music and disturbing sound effects are heard throughout the play at various moments and they sync up well with the action on stage. Whistling is by far the most dreadful and eerie sound effect, and emphatically supported the atmosphere of horror onstage. Katie Ibrahim designs a rather simple lighting experience, with minimal equipment. However, the technical limitations do not distract from the story. In fact, the lighting is one of the more interesting parts of the entire production. Ibrahim plays with various lighting levels to represent different moments in the play, and incorporates a strong red light to shine when the ghosts appear.
The issues of intimate partner violence and the fear women carry with them in our society are ever present in Shadow Woman, which is appropriate considering how invasive these realities are in daily life. However, along with social commentary, the play delivers a somewhat frightening experience, particularly when a character unexpectedly and violently screams.
If you are interested in something different that might give you a Halloween scare, Shadow Woman is a solid option.