It’s amazing, really, how much a great production can compensate for a play’s shortcomings. Take the cast of “Apparition,” an off-kilter mélange of horror tropes from scribe Anne Washburn. All five ensemble members deliver amazing perfs crackling with a genuine dread that the script never musters. Backed by design that also transcends the material, they turn what might have been an arduous trek into a truly compelling journey through darkness.
And that includes literal darkness. One of the play’s many macabre vignettes — there are almost half a dozen, none of them connected — takes place in total blackness. A woman enters a man’s darkened room (her lover? Her friend?) because she’s heard a sound, but her intrusion results in morbid consequences that we can only hear.
This segment gives the play a chilling apex, since director Les Waters knows just how to exacerbate our blindness by filling the air with rustling skirts and creaking furniture. Meanwhile, the actors whisper lines like, “Aren’t you curious? To know what a flayed-open person feels like?” Hearing all this, the imagination is forced to delightfully frightening places.
But the sensation doesn’t last. Washburn’s goal seems to be creating a perpetual mood of terror, one that defies logical narrative and scrapes our primal nerves. She might succeed if she could focus her attention, but her script flits like a hummingbird between stock “spooky moments.” Therefore, just when we’ve gotten used to the terrible blackness, it’s time for a backstage look at a staging of “Macbeth,” complete with a Weird Sister who might be real.
With so many storytelling styles being used, the production never sustains a tone. It doesn’t help that Washburn often relies on “storytelling” monologues, so that supernatural events are recalled rather than enacted. And even worse for maintaining mood, most segments are divided, so that we see part one ages after part two.
Ultimately, the script becomes an almost academic study of things that are known to frighten theatergoers.
But while Washburn struggles to evoke emotional responses, there’s still plenty to be appreciated. The design team, for instance, has created the perfect environment for dread. Jane Cox’s lights slash through the Connelly Theater, their stark white beams revealing just enough of that lump in the corner to make it unsettling.
Meanwhile, costumer Christal Weatherly drapes the actors in moth-eaten Victorian finery. That might sound like a knock-off of “The Others,” but since characters are generally in the present day, the dated clothes place the production in an agreeably out-of-time world.
As much as the design accomplishes, though, it’s the cast that sells the spirit of the show. Maria Dizzia seems gripped by actual fear as she recalls a demonic force that came to her apartment. Her shuddering breath and quick jerks of the head (“What was that?”) read like instinctive reactions instead of an actor’s choices.
Likewise, Emily Donahoe convincingly slips into madness as she moves from describing Lady Macbeth’s breakdown to experiencing it. These thesps’ eyes are clearly alive with in-the-moment thinking, and it’s inspiring to observe.
Equally impressive is the physical prowess of T. Ryder Smith, who in one scene tempts a young man into cannibalism with a viper’s calm. His body reflects his evil as he moves from a cross-legged position into snake-like undulation. Smith’s slow specificity makes his transformation an alarming tour de force.
It’s too bad that the dramaturgy keeps what the actors are clearly experiencing so far from the audience. But even if they must be observed at arms’ length, there’s still much to be said for thesps this skilled at embodying the dark.