John O’Keefe’s short play, Ghosts, shares a title with the searing domestic drama that caused an uproar in certain circles back in the late 19th Century. Ibsen’s play had the unsavory elements of incest, venereal disease, philandering, and more. O’Keefe’s play concerns the dead. And a lively bunch of dead they are. They are confused by their situation. They are lonely and longing. They have sordid memories. They are alone.
Ghosts was a hit at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre back in the early1970s. Later, it ran for five months in Los Angeles, garnering three Dramalogue Awards, including Best Play, as well as an LA Weekly Award for Best Direction, an impressive provenance for a difficult play. How is it difficult? It is difficult in the way that some modern art is difficult. It challenges the dramatic norms as Picasso’s paintings challenged art lovers, and as Shoenberg challenged music lovers with his atonality.
John O’Keefe challenges an audience with the dark; no, not just dark, but utter darkness, a darkness that made this theatre-goer want to close his eyes. All there is to see in these black moments is the dim glow of florescent spike marks on the stage, an absolute necessity for the cast. In these extended periods of darkness, the six extraordinary performers give a choral rendition of the words and sounds of the self-aware dead, whose overlapping poetic cacophony of voices are heard coming from everywhere in the small theatre, often seeming so close that one could reach out and touch the actors. These sounds are words, not zombie groans. They have meaning for each of the characters that emerge when some light lets the audience see the performers.
Each character has a story, none of them happy. Each is alone, although voices weigh in. They range from the elderly to the child. Janine Venable has a lovely visage, behind which is a story of abuse. An elderly woman, (Tina Preston), is wheeled in on a hand truck with hair done up in a Gibson girl bun. She steps off the hand truck, comes downstage and talks about her life in her small town, eventually loosening her bun into a billowing cascade of hair. A mature man in a wooden rocker (Jan Munroe), rocks with vigor, all the while laughing maniacally until he stops and looks wildly around before starting up again with insane laughter. Bryan Bertone discovers he can seemingly warp the universe, and later runs a circle while lying sideways on the floor. Cat Davis appears as a child on a swing with her own tale of woe, while Elif Savas does protean work throughout.
Under the direction of the playwright, Ghosts is absolutely authentic, utterly fascinating, and thoroughly unique. If you want to experience something unlike anything you have ever seen, this is your show. It will challenge you. It will exasperate you. You may leave the theatre frowning and thinking, “Huh? What was that?” Hmmm…I think that might have been me.
Matt Richter’s lighting, what little there is, is superb, as is Tim Labor’s sound design. As always, Jennifer Palumbo manages the stage with absolute sang-froid.
Open Fist Theatre’s Rohrschach Fest, Inkblot A: Ghosts, runs through April 4 in rotating rep with Inkblot B and C at Atwater Village Theatre, in Los Angeles. Click on this link for exact days and times: