Back in the Shadows Again: The Lighter Side of “Dark Shadows”

Free Associates

at the Ivanhoe Theater

Seventy Scenes of Halloween

Chicago Viewpoints Ensemble

at Angel Island

The Pictureman and Meet Van Helsing

Seventh Sense Productions

at the ImprovOlympic

By Jack Helbig

Halloween used to be a holiday mostly for kids. But in recent years this ancient festival, which marked the end of the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon calendar year, has become increasingly popular with adults, a fact that drives fervent right-wing Christians crazy. Convinced as they are that Halloween celebrates a night when ghosts and ghouls and other denizens of hell supposedly walk the earth looking for victims, they forget that the holiday has already been sanitized once, by Pope Boniface IV in the seventh century: he transformed the day into Allhallows Eve, celebrating the evening before Allhallows or All Saints’ Day. But then a lot of these same Christians also think that Catholics, with their saints and icons and relics, are paganish too, if not flat-out pagans, and that the Wizard of Oz promotes paganism by showing us good witches and kindly wizards practicing magic.

I think the growing interest in Halloween is a good thing. In a culture that increasingly demands that human beings think and act like robots and computers–squelching feelings while they get the job done at a faster and faster rate–Halloween gives us a chance to exercise our imaginations and an excuse to dress up, role-play, and indulge our dark, repressed fantasies. It’s also the one time of year when as a society we actually celebrate the ugly and the scary, albeit rather cartoonishly, admitting that the world is not as beautiful or as effortlessly young as it is on TV. We are not all nubile and glamorous and athletic. And even if we are, eventually we all age and die–facts we frequently face only in the distorted mirrors of spook houses and horror movies.

It was only a matter of time before the off-off-Loop theaters, desperate as always for gimmicks to attract an audience, would try to capitalize on Halloween the way companies have already exploited the winter holiday season with wall-to-wall Christmas, Hanukkah, and anti-Christmas shows. Of the Halloween productions I’ve seen, the most successful is the Free Associates’ Back in the Shadows Again, which spoofs the cult 60s horror soap opera Dark Shadows.

The play is fully improvised–director Mark Gagne, introducing each show, calls it another episode in the series. But unlike all too many improvised evenings and scripted plays created by improvisers, Back in the Shadows Again shows no sign of being hastily thrown together. In fact, the show I saw reproduced the look and feel of the original more accurately than any of the dreadful scripted parodies I’ve been reviewing lately–Deep Freeze, Jung Frankenstein, and Superpussyvixen, to name three.

One local critic complained that Back in the Shadows Again moves too slowly and that the characters spend too much time talking about what they’re going to do and what they’ve just done. That’s nonsense. Part of the charm of the original daytime series, which ran from 1966 to 1971, was that it always took its sweet, moody time. Following the conventions of soap operas of that era, the characters spent a good long while chewing over conversations overheard and events that had just happened–or were about to happen, they feared. And part of the brilliance of the Free Associates’ satire is just how close they come to re-creating that aspect of the show: clearly they’ve watched over and over again every tape they could get their hands on.

But then the Free Associates–known for their bang on improvised parodies of works by such writers as Tennessee Williams, the Bronte sisters, and William Shakespeare–have always worked hard, even (gasp) reading, to make sure they reproduced the tone and style of their intended targets. And this time they’ve deepened their satire by adopting a trick from commedia dell’arte. Though the show is fully improvised, the cast is set: every actor knows beforehand what character he or she will be playing. Joe Reilly knows that, whatever happens, he’ll be the show’s vampire hero, Barnabas Collins. And Adrienne Smith will always play Dr. Julia Hoffman, a woman whose never-requited love for Collins carried her through five television seasons.

This choice gives the Free Associates lots of room to explore. Smith’s hilarious take on Dr. Hoffman, for example, simultaneously skewers the character’s dopiness and the tendency of Grayson Hall (who was Hoffman in the series) to overplay the role, filling her performance with lots of weird twitches and grimaces and facial expressions, as if she never quite got used to the idea that she didn’t have to play to the balcony anymore.

This extra work really pays off for the Free Associates, who’ve managed to create a satire every bit as fascinating as the original series. Conserving its most subversive element–the combination of gothic horror and such routine soap-opera gimmicks as blackmail, revenge, and broken hearts–Back in the Shadows Again adds a sweet layer of gently comic parody.

Jeffrey Jones’s Seventy Scenes of Halloween is a masterful black comedy that weaves the middle-class cliches of Halloween–dime-store masks, candy corn, trick-or-treaters–into a brooding meditation on life, love, and the dark secrets that drive us apart. A series of blackouts (70 in all) in no particular order, the play reveals on a Halloween evening all sides of a couple’s flawed relationship–Jeff’s childishness, Joan’s moodiness, Jeff’s lapse into adultery.

Jones never makes clear, however, whether we’re watching one Halloween, a series of Halloweens, or the stage representation of Jeff’s or Joan’s compulsive rethinking of the relationship, now over. And I’m glad he doesn’t, because he’s able to conjure so much mystery and dread from the simplest elements of daily life. Even bare-bones scenes–like the one early on in which Jeff is sitting on the couch, watching TV, and bellowing to Joan in the kitchen, “Do we have any candy corn?”–speak volumes about immature, lazy men and about relationships that have lapsed into boredom and routine.

The downside of this richness is that the play should be directed by someone of the caliber of Greg Allen, who offered a brilliant staging in 1993. He negotiated both the play’s comedy and its mournful subtext without lapsing into either shtick or sentimentality. Director Matthew W. Roth stumbles into both in this uneven Chicago Viewpoints production, thanks in part to Charles Picard’s sometimes over-the-top acting as Jeff and in part to Roth’s own awkward, last-minute appearance as the Beast, a character in a goblin mask who variously represents Jeff’s dark side, an intruding stranger, and the sense of shame and guilt pervading Jeff and Joan’s relationship.

Still, much goes right. Laura Ruth as Joan is every bit as magnificent as she was last spring in the Red Orchid production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Ruth manages to find something new–perhaps in the way she sprawls on the couch or ambles up to the door–in every one of the 70 short scenes, many of them subtle variations on previous scenes. When Picard isn’t overdoing it, he and Ruth have a nice energy together that really makes you want to know how things will turn out between Jeff and Joan.

After five minutes of either of Seventh Sense Productions’ one-acts, what you want to know is how long till the tedium is over. Sadly, the program fails to give a complete running time. That, a small flashlight, and something to read to pass the time would improve the show immeasurably.

The first play, M.L. Platt’s The Pictureman, is a variation on a Twilight Zone episode I remember, in which a man had a camera that took photographs of what was about to happen. Here a man can’t help but make prophetic sketches. He falls in love with a woman he believes is about to meet some untimely fate, and so he begins to stalk her. It’s not a bad story, really, though it doesn’t survive either Michael Moore’s all-thumbs direction or his cast’s amateur-hour acting. Together they telegraph every twist, even the play’s O. Henry ending, minutes ahead of time. And no one manages to create a believable character.

Still, The Pictureman is miles ahead of Meet Van Helsing, an essentially plotless piece that brings together in a bar the grandson of Dracula’s nemesis, Dr. Van Helsing; Dracula’s pitiful fly-eating sidekick Renfield; and the Romanian-accented vampire himself. Once he’s conjured them up, local playwright Karl J.B. Sundstrom doesn’t have a clue what to do with them, so he has them talk, talk, talk, like a trio of undergraduates yammering a Saturday night away.

Some of the dialogue is mildly interesting–as when Vlad, as the vampire calls himself, discusses the many myths that have sprung up around him. But most of it is utterly unnecessary. Like the play itself.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Back in The Shadows Again photo by Bill Trotter.