Chicago Actors Ensemble

Remember James Pike? He was the Episcopal Bishop of California who got a little flaky in the 60s and ended up renouncing the Church. One of his excesses, at least insofar as the Episcopalians were concerned, was his involvement with the occult: he hired mediums to help him get in touch with his son, who’d committed suicide.

Pike claimed to have actually talked with the dead boy. He said young Pike was sorry he’d killed himself; death had not only not solved his problems but had actually made them worse by depriving him of the physical body through which he might eventually have worked them out. It’s apparently a rule of the afterlife that souls can’t influence even their own situation unless they somehow gain access to the world of flesh and blood. Without his body, Bishop Pike said, the poor kid was powerless to help himself.

The ghosts haunting Richard Engling’s Ghost Watch are in pretty much the same spot. A married couple who lost their lives when the husband’s jealousy turned violent, they’re stuck in a sort of astral tape loop–an endlessly repeated snuff movie in which they reenact their final passion, complete with original terror and rage. And they can’t do anything about it because they’ve got no bodies.

At least not until Adam and his pals show up. An ambitious young video maker who figures he can break through to visibility if he can document a haunting, Adam takes over the apartment where the domestic slaughter took place, sets up his cameras, and digs in to see if he can’t catch himself a ghost. What he doesn’t know, of course, is that the ghosts may very well want to catch themselves a man.

And that they’re just implacable enough to do it. These ghosts aren’t into philosophy–or even consciousness, really; they don’t possess young Pike’s rueful awareness of who and what he is. They may not even know they’re dead. They just keep plowing through their little horror show; generating their noxious, literally chilling aura; making themselves felt in the jitters they produce and the doors they slam. In the chaos that emanates from their chaotic natures. They are, as a tactful clairvoyant puts it, “confused spirits.”

Not unlike the play itself. As directed by Richard Helweg, Ghost Watch is an impressively tense experience. With its lurid apparitions and sudden shocks, its escalating series of sharply conceived and well-executed gimmicks, Helweg’s production generates a classic horror-show anxiety–the sort of mood in which you notice yourself muttering at the stage, a sick feeling in your stomach, telling the actors, No, no, fool! Don’t stay there!

But the script itself is a confused, chaotic spirit that hasn’t the vaguest idea–and may not want to know–what it’s about.

I mean, here’s a play where the dominant image is that of a man murdering his wife and killing himself; echoes of that image run–with varying degrees of lethalness–through every interaction. Clearly, male violence is the essential subject of Ghost Watch. And yet, rather than face that subject, Engling tries to push it away. To bury it. To undermine it by means of a silly, incoherent, and wildly misogynistic subtheme involving a she-devil of a corporate executive.

Ghost Watch doesn’t have to be such a mess of contradictory impulses and evasions. It could be–in its imaginative heart, it already is–a devastating piece of work, depicting male violence as a kind of contagion of the soul that we acquire by breathing in the sickness of generations. But Engling’s still got to let it fulfill itself.

In the meantime, it’ll do as a scary Halloween show, thanks to Helweg–and to Steve Gusler, who’s responsible for the special effects. Bob Pries pegs Adam nicely, with a perkiness that runs just this side of manic–and then slowly slips over. Paul Dillon’s dry double takes as Adam’s buddy, Kendall, make him an effective foil for Pries even as they compensate for confusions in the writing.

No amount of compensation, however, can save the two major women’s roles as they’re presently constituted–though Nancy Kresin and Mary Derbyshire make interesting attempts. Derbyshire, especially, develops an unexpected fierceness before the absurdities of her character crush her. Millicent Hurley fares much better, easily inhabiting her role as a genuinely good, spiritually sensitive woman who lets herself get tangled up in other people’s karma. But the most satisfying performance of the show is a little one by Patti Hannon, who’s sweetly, almost gravely comic as a Swedish clairvoyant. This is the second time I’ve seen Hannon onstage, and the second time I’ve been bowled over by her flip but somehow resonant presence. I hope she’s got work lined up after this, because I’ll want to go see it.