‘Phantoms’ possess actress, reviewer falls for it

“Phantoms Go Down” starts out with Rosalind (Sarah Matthes ’13) whipping her belt back and forth, and proceeding to suck her toe.

But at its core, this original play written by Ariel Shepherd-Oppenheim ’10 is really about the journey of three siblings to spread their mother’s ashes. In this process, the audience witnesses something as absurd as the play’s introduction: the fragmentation of a family, a social construct meant to define unity and a form of special loyalty.

Through a series of flashbacks and memories we see a family of four children raised by a single mother. We never truly get to know what is the source of their dysfunction: is it the eldest son’s constant redeployment to war? Is it his eventual suicide? Is it the mother’s occasional unmotherly behavior? Is it LiLo’s fault again? OR IS IT CHOCOLATE MILK?

Cleo Handler ’12 plays the matriarch of the family in question, Darlene, in a somewhat disturbing portrayal of a happy-go-lucky mother.

Darlene should probably not be motivating her bookish yet caustic daughter Kate (Julie Shain ’13), to take some pot and beer money for when she goes to college. Darlene should probably not be so enthusiastic when telling her story about Cecilia the Radish, where eating the radish equates to death. Through Handler’s masterful balance of the joyful and the eerie, everything we thought “cool moms” should do becomes unacceptable. Hawt.

On the one hand, her children turned out to be quasi-sophisticated intellectuals. They are interested in the works of Faulkner and Baudelaire. They share an odd affinity to learning the five stages of grief. Still, Kate is a writer, and Zander (Jeremy Wright ’12) is a television producer in love.

But then there’s Jamie (Elias Kleinbock ’14), the oldest brother, an Iraq soldier whose wisdom is offset by his desire to drive down to Cabo San Lucas “looking for breasts.” Rosie, played by Matthes, comes off as the token black sheep; a performance artist who ends up being possessed by her mother after snorting her ashes.

This is the gist of the play: a longing to cling to the realm of the earthly, the wistful yearning to say goodbye for the last time. Shain plays Uptight Kate with earnestness. She is the daughter who missed her mother’s funeral, who at first is reluctant to believe in Rosie’s possession but who ultimately bemoans the final departure of Darlene’s soul after radio waves ignite a symbolic exorcism. Question mark?

The most powerful scene, however, occurs right before this moment, when Rosie and Darlene recite anecdotes in unison; the possessed and the possessor reminiscing of the past. This is the second time we see Matthes inhabit more than one character in one show (“Metamorphoses,” anyone?), and again, she pulls it off in a truly chameleonic fashion.

Yet in a play like “Phantoms Go Down,” you tend to be more interested in plots than performances. You create certain connections that might stray from the author’s intention: Rosie is akin in some ways to Faulkner’s Vardaman in “As I Lay Dying;” Pearl (Michelle Taylor ’13) reminds us of Shakespeare’s Fool in “King Lear.” I attribute these wonderful allusions not to the story, but to the actors’ power to shape it. And in this show, the actors own their characters, transforming what could considered a dull and confusing narrative into a worthy experience.

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