Before his play has even properly started, Ike Holter’s “The Light Fantastic” lobs two genuine, I-cant-believe-I-just-screamed-out-loud moments at the audience with a prelude that plays like “The Exorcist” meets “Mean Girls” meets Christopher Marlowe’s “Faustus.” Forewarned or no, you will scream. Probably twice.
‘The Light Fantastic’ ★★★1/2 When: Through June 16 Where: Jackalope Theater in the Broadway Armory Park, 5917 N. Broadway Tickets: $5 – $30 Info: Jackalopetheatre.org Run time: 90 minutes, no intermission
With that, Holter’s just getting started with his genre-busting, 90-minute spine-tingler. Directed with smarts and sass by Gus Menary, “The Light Fantastic” is a mashup of horror and pointed commentary on poverty, homophobia, assisted suicide and – crucially – whether a flaming dumpster fire of a human can change her ways.
Here’s the setup: Grace (note the name) is an abjectly awful millennial. She treats her mother and her boyfriend like dirt, bullies the vulnerable, and verbally abuses anyone who claps back at her boorish obnoxiousness. After a near-death experience (saying any more would result in spoilage), Grace is determined to turn over a new leaf. Her journey is complicated by demonic forces. Or maybe it’s just drugs.
Grace (Paloma Nozicka, finding the humanity in a Queen Bee who wants to be better) is at the center of things. She’s orbited by her much-abused boyfriend Eddie (Diego Colon, projecting warmth and kindness) her stoner, Ice Cube-quoting mother Fiona (a hilariously feisty Janice O’Neill) and Harriet (Brianna Buckley), a weary small-town lesbian cop.
Many in Grace’s world are not who they seem. Fiona’s new BFF Adam (Tommy Malouf) isn’t an aggressively friendly weirdo who just happened to befriend Fiona, Katerina (Elena Maria Cohen, a haunting, hunted presence) is not some party-crashing Cassandra. Crucially, the shape-shifting Andrew Burden Swanson starts out as a tormented robber, but shows up later as someone (or something) else entirely in the play’s final scenes.
Down to the minutest gesture, Menary’s cast gives deliciously vivid performances, while Holter’s dialogue ferrets out the layers of portent folded into the dialogue.
Take, for example, Harriet’s official police update on a home invasion. It starts at a simmer. By the time Buckley has finished, she’s rolling in the deep, with full-force, come-to-Jesus ferocity. I’ll be damned (so to speak) if Buckley doesn’t make that soliloquy as incandescent as a hallucinatory halo. Think Billy Sunday, with just a hint of August Wilson’s Aunt Ester and you’ll get the idea.
Holter toys with his audience throughout. Maybe Grace’s satanic visions are nothing more than a brain on drugs. Maybe Katrina’s warnings are the product of a deranged mind. Or maybe demons are on the hunt in the “dark, dark heart of Indiana.” All Harriet knows is that instances of mutilated cattle are on the uptick as are reports of townsfolk getting snatched up by spooky, smoky wraiths and sucked off the face of the earth like human lint in some cosmically pernicious Hoover. Also, the weather is downright freaky.
Holter’s intelligent, absorbing dialogue is burgeoning with cultural references at it moves from sublimely poetic to drolly self-aware to lightning-fast quippery. When Harriet speaks of the weirdness engulfing the town, she evokes Calpurnia’s Act 2 warning in “Julius Caesar.” Calpurnia saw lions whelping in the streets and graves yawning open to give up their dead. Harriet warns of inexplicably murdered livestock and a statistically unlikely torrent of missing person reports. Both Harriet and Calpurnia sound the initial alarm in their respective stories. Neither are heeded.
All hail to the designers— Sotirios Livaditis (set), Slick Jorgenson (lights), Steve Labedz sound), Lacey Hexom, props, “ghost wrangler” Brandon Moorhead and magic consultant Brett Schneider. When the demonic special effects kick into high gear, Jackalope achieves Amityville-worthy horrors. Check the wallpaper in Eddie’s home: It’s as malevolent as the slithering phantoms living behind the walls in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist horror classic, “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
To riff on the title of a recent movie that also redefined the horror genre: Get in. “The Light Fantastic” is as scary as it is substantive. Get there.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.