Slow Torture

The prospect of an evening of ghost stories is intriguing, especially this time of year, but there's no point in dragging it out for two-and-three-quarter hours when only five to ten minutes' worth of the material is even of passing interest. Director Scott Gibson and company's enthusiasm notwithstanding, Once Upon a Midnight Dreary is a brain-numbing collection of writings that are infinitely more boring than suspenseful.

The show, which is being presented at the Denver Civic Theatre by Conundrum State Productions, consists of a reader's theater-style prologue, four colorless one-act plays ranging from fifteen to 45 (interminable) minutes each, a short piece that punctuates the works that comprise Act Two and, just in case anyone hasn't gotten the point about an overactive imagination being fear's best friend, a tidy epilogue to wind things up.

Don Nigro's Specter is an elongated conversation between a supposedly stranded woman, Marla (Robin Freeman), who flags down a passing motorist, Norris (Jeffrey Bull), in the middle of a storm. As the two sit on a slanted car seat and play an impromptu game of truth or dare (to the accompaniment of a dull, recorded roar that sounds like a muffled car wash), we learn that Marla has in the past waylaid helpful motorists, seducing them and, with the help of her boyfriend, killing them. It's a 45-minute play that lasts about 42 minutes too long.

Nigro's Lurker, on the other hand, is an agreeable, fifteen-minute piece about a peeping Tom named Marston (Ron Mediatore), who's so taken with the shapely Lil (Kristine Ryker) that he hangs around outside her house and watches her through the windows. When he gets too close for comfort, she plants him in her garden -- permanently.

After intermission, we're introduced to a pair of college students, Oswald (Jeffrey Bull) and Hackett (Mediatore), who take refuge in a cabin during a blizzard in John Pielmeier's A Ghost Story. They bed down for the night, but not before telling each other tepid stories, which they share with a mysterious woman, Soma (Ryker), who appears out of nowhere midway through the thirty-minute drama. Apart from a couple of vivid, descriptive passages of dialogue, and Oswald's revelation that he's named for JFK's assassin, the play goes nowhere slowly. (Too bad Hackett wasn't named after comedian Buddy.)

By the time Nigro's forty-minute Scarecrow begins, the evening is woefully in need of a work that has some kick to it, or at least a couple of gory, psychosexual scenes that will elevate the production to the artistic level of the Friday the 13th movies. But despite some interesting character work by Freeman, Ryker and Mediatore, that never happens.

Director Gibson has obviously chosen the plays because he appreciates their entertainment potential, and it's always gratifying to witness another new theater company brave the waters with an ambitious first effort. (Future productions include the North American premiere of a play about Sarah Bernhardt and Mrs. Patrick Campbell and a comedy thriller by Rupert Holmes.) In this case, though, Gibson and company have obviously taken on more -- or perhaps less -- than they're capable of handling.

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