Playwright/director Julia Jarcho’s The Terrifying is an object lesson in the magic of live performance, building a striking theatrical experience out of a slim, unsettling folk tale of a script. Not all playwrights should direct their own work, but Jarcho, turning the very traditional theatre space of the Abrons Arts Center’s Harry De Jur Playhouse into an disorientingly inside-out environment, breathes mood and texture into the play’s archetypal characters and broad narrative strokes. The piece is realized with confidence and control in every detail, anchored by Ben Jalosa Williams’s immersive live sound design (so omnipresent that Williams is credited as both designer and actor) and a bravura performance by Pete Simpson in all three leading-male roles (a pompous schoolteacher, a handsome stranger, and a drunken jailer).
A dark, strange current with a whiff of the feral and the untamed runs through much of Jarcho’s work. The Terrifying, very loosely inspired by an unfinished story by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, brings that feral quality to the foreground. The piece is populated by the “red in tooth and claw” side of nature–giant carnivorous boars with a touch of the werewolf; mysterious bats; a murky and dangerous wood–and the even darker side of human nature. The play is merciless in its grim procession; it’s not exactly a spoiler to say this is the kind of fairy tale tipping into horror story that has very few survivors. Sometimes its imagery and its surprises are genuinely startling; more often they’re sly and creepy, made satisfying by the cleverness of the execution.
In a nonspecifically archaic village (Asta Bennie Hostetter’s peasant-like costumes loosely evoke Gogol-era Russia), a young girl, Raluka (Hanna Novak), in the woods waiting for, we assume, her lover, is doubly surprised: first by a gruff old man in a battered shearling coat–later introduced as Cloris, the local jailer (Pete Simpson)–offering her a bouquet of flowers, and then by the attack of a ravenous, snarling beast (unseen, evoked entirely by sound and light). The jailer, somehow in thrall to the beast, escapes–but not before being irresistibly drawn to the young girl’s blood.
Raluka is just the latest victim of something dark plaguing the village. Stories of the beast abound–including the persistent rumor that the beast devours more than flesh: “Your desire would get into its bloodstream, and its next victim would be the one you loved.” For Raluka, the one she loved is Raymour (Jess Barbagallo), the son of the local schoolteacher, Pewter (Simpson again). Raymour, though, is himself in love with Annelise (Kim Gainer), the daughter of the jailer, and they want to run away together to the City. But then a handsome stranger comes to town–a writer, Nickel (Simpson’s third role), trying to make his career on the tales he’s heard of the beast. Annelise, herself a storyteller trying to use narrative to understand what’s happening to her home, is both drawn to and wary of Nickel, trying to protect herself and also find her escape from this place.
The Terrifying isn’t done with the village; as its corruption seeps into the town, the beast will claim more victims, but the climate of fear, paranoia, and retribution will also strike at the heart of the community. Raymour, trying to do a good deed for the schoolboy Vosha (Kristine Haruna Lee) is drawn into the woods after dark; Vosha will meet a more human, but equally dark, fate.
And all of the village’s dead aren’t entirely gone, re-appearing as ghostly presences, calling to the survivors from the beyond–but what, and where, is that beyond? The afterlife? The City? The future? The haunted minds of those left behind? Impossible to say.
In perhaps the piece’s most striking theatrical effect, those spirits inhabit the space normally reserved for the audience. Here, audience and actors share the stage of the Abrons Arts Center, in almost uncomfortable, claustrophobic proximity. Swathed in cobwebs, lit as if the ghost-characters are watching the play–watching us–the seating area becomes both mysterious netherworld and unsettling mirror.
In an ensemble of mostly straightforward, stripped-down performances, Simpson is the standout, shifting from role to role with utter clarity of diction, physical presence, and relationships with the other characters–even when he’s playing against himself. Having the one actor in all three roles underscores the directorial balance between steely specificity and unsettling ambiguity–like the half-eaten raw beet that circulates through the play, smearing juice that is both the unsatisfying food of a poor pre-modern village and the bloody imprint of the constant violence of this place.