Think “Rosemary’s Baby” crossed with “Drag Me to Hell” and ever-so-slightly infused with “The House on Mango Street” and you’ll have a glimmering of what playwright Isaac Gomez has created with “The Displaced.”
Haven Theatre’s world premiere is a rip-roaring, hair-raising horror story that’ll have you clutching for the person next to you, even if you have not previously met. Stark terror in confined spaces has a way of engendering unanticipated introductions.
When: Through July 1
Where: Haven Theatre at the Janet Bookspan space in the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee
Run time: 1 hour, 40 minutes, no intermission
To paraphrase the old adage, tragedy is hard and comedy is even harder. To which I’d add: Horror is diabolically difficult. It’s been almost half a century since novelist William Peter Blatty unleashed “The Exorcist,” setting the bar for tales of possession as high as the heavens. The tropes of the genre — think innocent maids spewing pea soup vomit while levitating and screeching about sewing socks in hell (also a paraphrase, as this is a Family Newspaper) — jumped the shark long ago. Lord knows it takes a fiendishly creative mind to spin a genuinely surprising, camp-free, truly terrifying tale of demons among us.
Directed by Jo Cattell, “The Displaced” accomplishes all of the above. Along with the scares, Gomez has written a pointed exploration of gentrification, blending supernatural horrors with the all-too-real nightmare of being priced out your beloved home. The gentrifiers in Gomez’ Pilsen-set screamfest are Marisa (Karen Rodriguez) and Lev (Rashaad Hall), a couple with sizzling sexual chemistry and equally volatile issues with trust.
As the troubles of the home’s previous tenants come to light, Cattell ramps up the fear with a virtuosity that made me think of frogs being slowly boiled alive. Frogs, so science tells us, don’t realize how hot the water has gotten until it’s too late to escape. So it goes for Marisa and Lev. By the time they realize the extent of the danger, their odds of escape are slimmer than the sliver of ghastly greenish light slithering in under their front door.
Rodriguez is a wonder, charisma oozing from her pores even when she’s growling blasphemies and contorting her limbs like a Cirque du Soleil performer in the grip of ten thousand Hecates. Hall is her match, making Lev so recognizable and likable you will want to leap on stage and save him (don’t) as matters careen irrevocably south.
The other key character is the collective design elements. Sarah D. Espinoza (sound), Erik Barry (lights), Arnel Sancianco (set), Emily Boyd (props) and Ryan Plunkett (magic consultant) take the most mundane items — a broken faucet, a malfunctioning computer, a family photo — and create a rollercoaster nightmare that both thrills and terrifies. With Rachel Flesher’s design of the intimate and violent elements, “The Displaced” whipsaws between eroticism and evil to dazzling effect.
Whether or not you are among those who understand that Halloween and Day of the Dead are holidays far superior to Christmas and Easter, you will be sucked into the production’s diabolically fine vortex. Pro tip: Post show, you may well find the sight of hammers or your local grocery’s poultry aisle profoundly triggering. Also, buy some sage. You’ll want to smudge your darker corners when you get home.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.