CAT Theatre kicks off Halloween with the horror effects-driven ‘I’ll Be Back Before Midnight’
When it comes to horror, the stage has given us some delectably frightening evenings. Macbeth, Dracula, Wait Until Dark, Sweeney Todd, Rocky Horror, Phantom of the Opera, Deathtrap even Little Shop of Horrors.
I’ll Be Back Before Midnight doesn’t quite fit that caliber of drama. It falls somewhere in the camp, slasher tradition of films like Friday the 13th, Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street.
I’ll Be Back Before Midnight, written by Peter Colley, sets up a familiar scenario. Young pretty wife Jan (Katherine Wright) has had a nervous breakdown. Her questionably motivated husband Greg (Adrian Grantz) brings her out to an isolated cabin in the woods on the land of sketchy old farmer George (Bill Blair), ostensibly to “relax,” but also invites his “sister” Laura (Nicole Morris) with whom he is almost certainly having an incestuous affair.
Typically, no one is who you think and mayhem ensues.
Scenarios like this, when done in the classic style of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” or his “Suspicion” (two Joan Fontaine movies), are rife with tension, dread and foreboding.
The genre has been easy to satirize in films like Scream and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.
So, it is with CAT Theatre’s production of I’ll Be Home Before Midnight. The play itself is wafer thin but it is so loaded with stylistic flourishes that the product overcomes the hokey setup.
Master of Flourishes would be Director/Sound Designer Stephen Ryan. From the gorgeously thoughtful musical soundtrack to the 1001 lighting and sound cues that change the look of the stage in a heartbeat, Ryan assaults our senses so successfully that we literally cannot catch our breath.
Layered underneath the visual and aural assault is a stylization of satire and camp. The actors are directed to give heightened performances. Ryan elevates the scenario to a hyper reality that feeds the paranoia of the main character. It feels anticipatory as if you’re certain some axe is going to drop off the wall and cleave someone at any moment.
The designers are in lockstep with Ryan’s direction. The lighting cues may be slightly hyperactive, changing the stage not only with time of day or frequent power outage, but also to dramatize lines. Ryan will spotlight a telephone ringing or a character in a self-important piece of dialogue.
Ryan has a reputation as a cinephile and he brings that sensibility to his staging.
It is a bit much at times, but that, too is part and parcel of the genre.
The actors do well but don’t quite rise to the stylization.
The actresses have an easier time of it than the men.
It might be worth noting that this genre is steeped in 70’s sexism. Women are the prey and the evil masterminds. Men are the animalistic brutes in sheep’s clothing.
Katherine Wright plays the fragile, recently institutionalized wife Jan. I’m sure I missed the reason for her institutionalization but I gathered it came hard upon her marriage to Greg. It is suggested he married her for her father’s connections.
Regardless, Jan is a mess and is asked to stay hyper-tense the whole play. The obligatory piercing screams are hers. Jan has some strident moments but spends most of the play in cower.
Wright looks the part and physicalizes well. She is agile and believably spunky in retaliation. She loses credibility in the more vulnerable moments when she is trapped or feels psychologically unstable. The trouble stems from a lack of establishing a base character to then build onto or detract from. All we see is the heightened states of nervousness and fear. Without a peek at where her “normal” is for comparison, her highs and lows seem excessive and unexplained.
Morris as Sister Laura, on the other hand, establishes a firm base. We know who she is because she has a singular agenda and never veers from it. The script unrealistically brings her into many scenes that seem superfluous but Morris handles them with aplomb. Her sublimely beautiful sister/mistress is cocky and controlling and cruel. Morris, looking much like a dark haired 50’s film goddess, flips her long, luxurious hair in attitude as well as to punctuate a point. Maybe a few flips too many.
Wright and Morris both score in their roles but not as well as they could have with some judicious editing in their acting choices. I speculate that grandiose and over the top was a directorial decision which works well for the effects but maybe required a less frenetic hand in editing character development.
Grantz plays husband Greg who is not at all what he seems. I thought much of his introductory banter with his wife missing the element of foreshadowing: a look or a private stage moment to scheme. As it was, he played reasonable and confused at his wife’s paranoias. We wished the deviousness of Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s Suspicion, another wife in trouble movie. You never knew what his position was towards his wife. That was part of the fear. Grantz plays Greg too matter-of-factly to really buy where Greg ends up.
Blair, as the creepy, sleazy old timer on whose farm this cabin sits, has a much more difficult time of it. The old man’s comings and goings in the house are invasive but never challenged. The character is ill defined. Blair himself seems too hyped up and unsettled to make much of an impression as far as figuring out what his role in this terror is going to be.
Blair plays the old man ala Walter Brennen, all ticks and homilies.
Eric Kinder’s set design was very attractive. CAT usually builds a stage wall with flats and embellishes on them. This time we had a kitchen with a sliding panel in the wall to pass food.
Pet peeve alert: this is the second play I’ve seen where there is much action in and out of swinging kitchen doors. Yet the doors swing in so that we can see the person entering the kitchen space. I ask: “Why aren’t these spaces lit?” People seem to be walking to dark kitchens!
Armstrong did a super job with the lights and his technician a superior job in executing them. If the technician was the stage manager, Zachary Owen, then he is to be congratulated.
Anna Bialowski clothed the characters very well, having particular fun with Nicole Morris’ slinky wardrobe.
This is Ryan’s directorial debut. When all is said and done, for a maiden voyage, Ryan proved an able skipper.
I’ll Be Back Before Midnight, is an average horror story enhanced by exciting effects and good performances. Without giving anything away, I was startled out of my seat more than once.
You will have a chillingly good time.
I’ll Be Back Before Midnight runs now through 10/29 at CAT Theatre, 319 N. Wilkinson Rd., Richmond, Virginia. You can scoop tickets here!
Director Zachary Owen will be looking for three female and two male actors.September 27, 2016
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