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November 7, 2006

UT turns on Ghostlight

“We have these two very beautiful people alone in a dark theater, and it’s stormy outside,” said director Michael Stevens, on the premise of Ghostlight, by David Alford. Two actors, waiting for their absent director, interact tensely with each other and an unusually creepy rehearsal space. When the director arrives, however, the tension is not lifted as expected, but only begins to increase exponentially, as does the unsettling sense that something, or everything, is amiss.

The play is not only set in a theater, but much of the dialogue is about theater, providing for some interesting choices and challenges in both staging and acting. It is a play that cannot avoid self-consciousness, and the actors have to be doubly convincing to effectively transport an audience that is being reminded that they are acting with almost every other line. It is fortunate that the actors are all quite talented, as the viewer soon becomes involved in the characters and events as in any other well done stage production. All that remains of the audience’s self-awareness are a few moments when the play reminds the audience of just how successful it is being.

The setting of a theater gives the play a lot of opportunities for creative staging, and Stevens’s production makes full use of them. Far beyond the now standard use of the aisle, Ghostlight involves characters using the seats in the audience and operating the controls in the booth. It integrates almost every part of the actual theater, even those that an audience rarely considers, like the lightboard, for instance.

Though the play makes full use of the Reynolds Club’s Third Floor Theater, it convincingly transports the audience to a different, much creepier theater (if such a place can be imagined). The dimly lit stage is cluttered with what seems to be a sizeable and slightly sinister chunk of the contents of UT’s prop storage, at the center of which flickers the naked bulb of the ghostlight itself. The sounds of a storm, creepy voices, and sirens cut in on the speakers, all contributing to the consistently unsettling tone of the piece.

The fact that this play is being staged in Chicago right now at all is somewhat remarkable, as it has not yet been published, or even completely finished. Last year, Stevens was approached by a friend from Nashville who loved the piece and strongly suggested that he direct it. Stevens got in touch with the writer, David Alford, who gave him permission to use the still-unpublished script on the single condition that he be invited to the show.

“We are part of the very beginning of a process,” said Stevens. Alford will be in the audience on Saturday, and he will use what he sees to revise the script one more time before beginning the process of trying to get it published.

Ghostlight is a play that pleads to be enjoyed on multiple levels. It is gripping on the most basic viewing, with a plot full of shocking revelations and a tone that is constantly on edge, but it almost forces the audience to go deeper, to consider the way people relate, to consider the importance of theater and other art and how it affects people. It does not answer all of its own questions, or restrict itself to a single interpretation, or attempt some sort of unified effect.

“The response needs to be a curiosity and a desire to just be alone and think about it,” said Stevens.

Ghostlight is showing this Thursday through Saturday in the Reynolds Club’s Third Floor Theater. It is an experience that is sure to be at once stunning and moving, and it provides plenty to contemplate.

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