Vintage Neuroses in a Noir Package: “Unusual Things Have Happened: Tales of Everyday Horror”

Photo via Facebook; the cast at Charlestown Working Theatre.

Presented by imaginary beasts
Produced by special arrangement with the children of Shirley Jackson, and Catalyst Management, LLC. 
By Shirley Jackson
Directed by Mathew Woods
Ensemble: Laura Detwiler, Denise Drago, Lauren Foster, Molly Kimmerling, Amy Meyer, Bob Mussett, Jennifer Taschereau

November 2nd – November 16th, 2019
Charlestown Working Theater
442 Bunker Hill Street, Charlestown, MA  02129
The Beasts on Facebook

Trigger warning: psychological horror, emotional trauma, spooky ghosts

Critique by Kitty Drexel

“Journeys end in lovers meeting; I have spent an all but sleepless night, I have told lies and made a fool of myself, and the very air tastes like wine. I have been frightened half out of my foolish wits, but I have somehow earned this joy; I have been waiting for it for so long.”― Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House

(Charlestown, MA) imaginary beasts’ latest production, Unusual Things Have Happened: Tales of Everyday Horror brings the psychological pain of everyday anxiety into sharp focus. The beasts tell six stories adapted from the works of Shirley Jackson in a style that they have named “narrative theatre.” Cast members dictate the action onstage just as a third-person voice narrates the passages of a book.  It looks and sounds like a one or two-person Greek chorus.

The vignettes that make up the production examine the commonplace terrors that women experience on the daily: isolation, powerlessness, and disorder. There is puppetry, mime, and yes, scene narration. The narrators are like impartial babysitters watching their human companions toddle towards danger. They might stop them, but where’s the fun in that? 

I fell down a gothic romance rabbit hole when I started my research for this review. Shirley Jackson was writing horror at the same time that Betty Friedan was conducting the survey of her classmates that would become The Feminine Mystique. The social expectation at the time (and always) was that women would find fulfillment through housework, marriage, sexual passivity, and childrearing only. Friedan said that women were depressed with a dissatisfaction they couldn’t articulate. Friedan’s naming their dissatisfaction gave them an escape out of it. 

It is no wonder that Jackson’s stories and novels are about psychologically unpinned housewives. Shirley Jackson’s nightmarish scenarios were real for them. The female characters presented in Unusual Things suffer from ailments that look like anxiety, intrusive thoughts, and paranoia.  Society has taught them to be passive. They are helpless to prevent the personal disaster that awaits them. 

The ensemble performances in this production are of imaginary beasts’ usual high quality. Unusual Things Have Happened appeals to the cast’s strongest skills. A production created via collaboration means that the ensemble can tailor their theatre to their artists. The choreography is executed with the same thoughtful care as the line delivery. The creepy hand puppets are as developed as the object work done with a 2×4. 

In the first piece, “What A Thought” Drago, Meyer and Kimmerling shadow each other. Their voices are similar in timbre. By pairing these three and their similar voices, the audience is shown three separate sides of one anxious housewife. “The Little House,” and “Home,” are solos for Lauren Foster and Jennifer Taschereau with supporting puppetry and mime from the ensemble. 

Photo via Facebook

Unusual Things Have Happened has a quiet, comedic start but flourishes into the unfunny drama foreshadowed by the play’s designers. Sophia Giordano and Matthew Christopher have created an old attic in the Charlestown Working Theatre’s black box theater. Mismatched parlor, dining and kitchen chairs stand in a row at the front of the stage. Stark, white sheets cover them like a protective shroud. A glassless mirror stand is a doorway into another world. These items are used as props to invoke laughter (because the macabre can be playful). In others, these items are tools to horrify the audience.   

There is a running soundtrack throughout the 90 production that is so natural to the action that the audience doesn’t process it until shorter cues punctuate the action. A “boing” sound accentuates a wife’s death threat making the moment cute instead of morbid. Whooshing wind noises send chills down the audience’s backs. The sound design by Matthew Woods gives an added layer of artistry to an already thoughtful show.

Unusual Things Have Happened lacks a button at the end of its last piece, “Lovers Meeting,” to signify that the play is over. It’s a common problem in imaginary beasts’ devised dramatic works. The lights went down, stayed down for several beats but the audience didn’t know to clap until the lights came back up for the cast bows. It isn’t enough to bring an audience to a new realm, we must be taken out of it too lest we are stuck there forever. 

The stylized movements by the cast, mask work in pieces like the group dance scene, “Portrait,” the detailed vintage costumes by Cotton Talbot-Minkin, spooky lighting design by Christopher Bocchiaro make Unusual Things Have Happened nightmarishly appropriate for the sad days after the Daylight Savings Time switch.  It plays until November 16. Get your tickets now. 

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