American Gothic terrifies. I felt it from the moment the play began, when the sounds of muffled chanting filled the dark basement theater of 217 Park Street. As the actors walked behind me towards the center of the room, I shifted a little in my seat with discomfort. Warily, I watched them shuffle through with their faces covered by white veils and their arms outstretched holding candles.
Conceived by Eli Epstein-Deutsch and Nahuel Telleria (who is also the director), the play is an experimental collaboration between students from the Yale Schools of Art, Music and Drama. Occult themes, true to the dark and brooding nature of the American Gothic genre, run throughout the work and fit in perfectly among the neo-Gothic buildings of Yale’s campus. The play’s write-up does a good job of keeping the plot vague while revealing what the experience will be like. When I sat down at my table in the Cabaret, I was expecting to be scared. An original score by students from the School of Music, featuring ominous piano riffs and eerie violin, only added to the atmosphere.
In light of what’s been said, I should specify that this play does not horrify (American Gothic literature distinguishes between horror and terror: Horror is revulsion and disgust, terror the anxiety that accompanies impending horror). This is one of the most deftly crafted aspects of the work. When the murderer called “Misfit” finds himself alone on stage with the grandmother of the play’s main family, he tells her that the punishment he’s endured in his life is far worse than anything he could have done to deserve it. As she sits and prays for her life, the sense of fear on her face is palpable and radiates throughout the room. We almost wish that the Misfit would just get on it with — blow her brains out and let us deal with the trauma afterward, instead of having us sit in apprehension over what he’ll do next. But when the murder finally comes, there are no gunshots; there is no blood pooled on the floor. Instead, the scene is described by a narrator — cool, detached, simultaneously saving us from both the anxiety of the exchange and the horror of witnessing a grotesque scene.
The narration was one of the play’s strong suits, and I found it impeccably well conceived and quite effective. Each of the three actors plays multiple roles and all of them serve as narrators as well. There are times when narration blends with performance as when actors play out a scene, but narrate it in the third person while maintaining their characters’ voices: When the family gets in a car crash, the grandmother continues to describe the scene even as she is thrown into the dash. The effect is to soften the blow of certain scenes by using the narrator to detach the audience from shocking visuals while still keeping them engaged.
As for standout performances, Kevin Hourigan’s acting really made the play. He is a gifted actor, as shown by his remarkable and instantaneous transitions from little boy to father numerous times in one scene; Because a cast of three plays a family larger than that, actors must take on multiple roles in a single scene — something Hourigan does with gusto. He is especially creepy in his role as a cold-blooded killer (Suggs), when he really shows his impressive range and versatility. Even when he is not speaking, Hourigan commands attention onstage with his telling and sometimes humorous facial expressions.
My only qualm with the play is that Telleria and Epstein-Deutsch seemed more intent on experimenting with different ways to convey a dramatic message than they did on tying the play together into a unified whole. This is forgivable, though, since I was impressed by the dynamism of the performance and the overall nature of the piece. As a whole, the play achieved what it set out to do: It was creepy and intriguing, and successfully blended music, dance and stagecraft. American Gothic has set some big expectations for its two co-creators, and we should look forward to what is to come.