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So . . . you can’t go wrong with a play presented on Halloween weekend that starts with a scream and ends with another, and in the two hours between offers creepy-crawly creaking doors and knocking poltergeists and other scary sounds that go bump—always—in the middle of the night.
Indeed, The Haunting of Hill House (from the novel by Shirley Jackson adapted by F. Andrew Leslie) is the perfect appetizer to prepare your palette for your main All Hallows’ Eve course this year. And you’re in luck: By the Sea Productions in Morro Bay is serving up just three performances, now through October 30, for you to devour deliciously.
As this production is a staged reading, performed by six (well, really seven) well-rehearsed players with no props or sets, it still offers all the lights and sounds demanded by such a tried-and-true spooktacular. The lighting effects, as well as their well-timed cues, are thanks to crew members Jatzibe Sandoval and Rhonda Crowfoot. And the sound effects, which require what is in essence a seventh character onstage with the actors, add a true sense of weirdness to this production. Kudos to Gregory DeMartini for his timing and stage presence.
The rather formal format, under director Kelli M. Poward’s restrained guidance, requires the actors to rely on their voices to portray the intentions, reactions, and frightfully fitful frailties of their characters (all of which are in evidence as their sojourn in Hill House progresses).
One of the visitors to Hill House, Eleanor (played by Sarah Smith), kicks off the supernatural free-for-all with the innocent query, “What’s there to be afraid of?” She slowly becomes the focus of the action (and loud noises), and the other characters begin to revolve around her. Smith’s well-modulated voice—and sturdy source of many of those screams—serves to focus the audience’s attention as the plot spirals out of the characters’ control.
Hill House itself becomes a monster (described variously as “unclean,” “disturbed,” and “born bad”), and you might assume that this fright-fest of a story would take itself so seriously that no slice of humanity or humor comes through. But all the players, including Smith, Janice Peters, Samvel Gottlieb, Rhonda Crowfoot, Sheridan Cole, and Craig Brooke, seem to enjoy finding the humor in their reading and in their characters, and that comes through. It may be the equivalent of “whistling past the graveyard,” but the opening night audience clearly welcomed it nonetheless.
It’s also entertaining that the characters are constantly discussing the presence of a house that surrounds them, but that the audience can’t see. The actors, then (with DeMartini’s able assistance), ensure that audience members feel the menace of this invisible presence. As you leave the performance and head out to your other Halloween hauntings, you might be inclined to whisper spookily to all within hearing, “It’s alive!”