Ghouls and Ghosts Disturb in The Remnant


directed by Jennifer Johnson

playing at Charlestown Working Theatre

through April 15

Tickets $10, seniors and students $8

take the Orange Line to Sullivan Square

If there were vampires or ghosts in Boston, they would most surely roam Charlestown.

With its abandoned buildings, sloping streets, dead-ends and lampposts, Charlestown manages to be Gothic with out having any Gothic architecture. The macabre fascinated H.P. Lovecraft who used Charlestown as a setting for his book, "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward." The Charlestown Working Theatre's current production, "The Remnant," looks at the fictional Ward's paranormal life. His altered states of consciousness are detailed in scenes which possess the mystery and horror of a nightmare. By assaulting the senses through light and sound effects, "The Remnant" hypnotizes the audience into joining Ward in his insane quest.

Like Dr. Frankenstein, Ward is tempted to resurrect a dead person--his grandfather--with necromancy, strange experiments, and witchcraft. The play follows the series of supernatural experiences which befall Ward (John Peitso) as he works towards his goal.

Ward's landlady, Dr. Willet (Kristen Johnson), opens the play, describing how she grew to know, love and lose Ward. Dr. Willet delivers her monologue perched n a loft and as she progresses, lights dawn on Ward in his bookish room. In another corner of the stage, a third figure becomes apparent. Bald and stocky, this figure (John Sharian) represents at various points a demon, Ward's grandfather, and a cyborg. He even barks to out of site vampires. The characters vie for attention in the small, steep theater which only seats 27 people.

All three characters share a preoccupation with light, electric and otherwise. Ward wields a gadget with blatant Freudian implications. It is a light bulb attached to a long rod and disk which he uses to inspect people and swings like an orchestra conductor. This rod is one of several futuristic props which look annoying awkward in the play's early 20th century setting. But the more Ward dangles and sways it, the more interesting it becomes. As the trail of the light bulb moves back and forth like a pendulum, it induces a trance which is bolstered by the constant whir of music.

Dr. Willet totes a candle. When she burns pages from Ward's manuscripts she becomes engrossed with the flames and maniacally mutters the same phrase over and over. Meanwhile, in the corner of the stage, the demonic figure regularly opens a light-filled porthole, symbolizing an entry into another dimension. After a particularly long, scary moment of darkness filled with the strangled screams of Dr. Willet, this porthole is thrown open. The light is blinding against the darkness.

The characters acrobatics contribute to the oneiric atmosphere. When Ward sings a soulful "Lay Me Down" with his shirt off, he dangles form ropes exposing his taut, sinewy body. The scene is choreographed as gracefully as a ballet. Later in the play, he delivers a speech upside down, supported by his ankles, with his shirt falling on his face and exposing his chest. The dimples of his abdomen flex each time he speaks, rendering his stomach an amorphous face.

As if to emphasize his liminal state, Ward's grandfather harangues form atop ladder and then hops with the ladder across the stage. Later he descends a metal grid by sliding his body in between the bars with half his body outside of the grid, half in. He exists partially in reality and partially in another world. In addition to creating striking images, these tactics are intelligent displays of how a madman might view movement.

In the play's most successful sequence, Ward is humiliated by two masked figures who dance around him, ripping out pages from his book and stuffing them in his mouth. As he begs for mercy, he is raised by a pulley and left to dangle in the air. The scene is cast in a red light, effectively evoking a hellish atmosphere. The torturers re costumed in sensuously textured clothing, making Ward's torment appear like a circus act.

"The Remnant" incorporates a series of atonal compositions which further add to the work's subliminal spell. While one scene mixes chromatic pitches with blobs of piano notes, another combines the shriveled sound of a rewinding tape recorder with the cacophony of urban traffic. Bellowing horns mark the beginning of Ward's descent into the afterlife. Ward's grandfather drags him around the room suffocating him with a trumpet. Though Ward manages to blow, the sound is like that of a dying animal. For the most part, however, these atonal compositions lurk beneath the viewer's attention.

Director Jennifer Johnson (Kristen's sister) keeps the characters' personas tightly wound which makes their lines stiff and subordinate to the light and sound effects. Ward's occasional temper tantrums rely on loudness without exploring his internal trauma. The characters' stamina leads them to practically throw themselves into ritualistic scenes, only to emerge later, dazed and confused. In describing his plans, Ward sketches frenetically on the stage's back wall. Again, the circular motions of his spotlit hand are hypnotic. Despite over-highlighted props and a physicality that overwhelms the acting, "The Remnant" whips up genuine suspense because the characters are fearless in the face of death. Moreover, Johnson saves the goriest scenes for last.

The program lists the sources for the play's development and enactment. Besides citing most of the Faust versions, it also cites the rock group Front 242 and "The Exorcist III". Indeed, "The Remnant" does not underestimate the audience's erudition. But the play alludes to more references than it has time to reconcile, leaving a residue of pretension.

Self-described as a multi-media piece, "The Remnant" disturbs the senses long after the finale. That characters do not take a bow, renders the performance all the more uncanny. The pace is quick and illusion and reality are conflated. The upshot is a schizophrenic journey seen from a mad person's point of view.