Presented by Harbor Stage Company
Written and directed by Jonathan Fielding and Brenda Withers
Featuring Robert Kropf, Alex Pollock, Stacy Fischer, Joe Kenehan
Jan 11 – 20, 2024
Boston Center for the Arts
BCA Plaza Black Box Theatre
539 Tremont Street
The digital playbill
Performed with no intermission.
Review by Kitty Drexel
BOSTON, Mass. — Harbor Stage Company presents Northside Hollow by Jonathan Fielding and Brenda Withers. It was previously performed on the Cape in 2015. The 2024 production is damn fine theatre.
Somewhere in rural America, a massive explosion has collapsed Gene, a miner in a working mine. Gene (Robert Kropf) wakes to find himself alone in the deep underground. His companion Vincent isn’t responding to his yells for help. His leg is broken. He is alone in the pitch black.
Gene is certain he is lost, pounding S.O.S. with a rock against a wooden support beam until volunteer rescuer Marshall (Alex Pollock) finds him in the rubble. They must devise an escape plan out of the mine while circumventing the landscape of Gene’s unsteady psyche. Stacy Fischer and Joe Kenehan complete the cast.
With Northside Hollow, Harbor Stage said in its playbill note, that its company wanted to know if they could light a show almost entirely by its audience. Yes, it can.
Select audience members wore headlamps on helmets remotely controlled by production crew during the performance. The helmet headlights turn on when Gene receives his rescuer, Marshall. The performance begins in the dark. We are immersed in blackness – like a person would if they survived a mine collapse. It quickly gets creepy.
The lighting design by Andrew Garvis is proof positive that a company doesn’t need fancy gobos or layered rigging to transport an audience to a different world. Garvis’ minimalist design scheme puts helmets on heads, red lamps in the backstage area for the cast’s safety, and a camping lantern onstage to deliver the audience to the mine while communicating how dire Gene’s situation is after the collapse.
Garvis’ work with co-designers David Lanza (sound) and Justin Lahue (scenic) evokes a lone childhood nightlight standing guard against the monsters under the bed. Except, the monsters in Northside Hollow are not only real; they are us.
The directors and actors are unsettlingly convincing at recreating both the claustrophobic environment of a mine and the terror of a collapse. Their work was so anxiety-provoking that my date and I wondered if the writers/directors were once trapped in a collapsed mine.
Friends, are you okay? Blink twice if you require rescue. You don’t have to suffer alone.
Robert Kropf is astute in portraying Gene, a cranky everyman. Kropf the actor tears himself open as Gene tries desperately to remain stoic in his unexamined toxic masculinity. Gene may be just a guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he’s not making it easy for us to feel bad for him.
Accurate, believable character-building requires great amounts of emotional labor. Kropf (and co-star Pollock as Marshall) has done a lot of emotional labor to prepare Gene for the stage. Emotional labor is not something a man like Gene would do. That Gene exhibits a varied depth of emotion (including every stage of grief) tells us Kropf (and Pollock) took the time to care deeply about his role and our reception of it.
Kropf and Pollock have several synced monologues. In one, they recite a prayer to Saints Barbara and Genevieve for deliverance out of the mine. It is one of the most tender moments the two men share in the show. It traps the audience in their world and shows us how devoted both actors are to their characters.
Pollock dominates the stage (and Gene) as Marshall, the volunteer rescue hero. He’s exactly the kind of person you’d want on a rescue: he navigates signs of shock and trauma response with courage, exudes confidence, and knows first aid. Gene attempts to thwart Marshall’s rescue efforts several times. Marshall will not be thwarted.
Stacy Fischer as Kath is a golden ray of sunshine. Fischer didn’t have to chew and swallow garden mulch to win our hearts, but she did. That’s dedication.
Potential audience members should note that Northside Hollow is an immersive play. Harbor Stage welcomes us to imagine what it is like in a collapsed corporate mine. Actors on the black box stage pretend to be in danger.
No one on or offstage is actually in danger. The Boston Center for the Arts and Harbor Stage have protocols to alert audience members should an emergency arrive. You are safe if you stay in your seats.
Despite this, some audience members were so enveloped in the production that they freaked out during the performance. The fear is part of the fun: we go to scary movies to feel scared. One attends Northside Hollow to participate in a dialog about a high-anxiety situation and feel scared/relieved they aren’t in the play.
If an immersive theatre experience is not your thing, that’s okay. Boston has so many other offerings for you! Tell your friends who will be interested. Northside Hollow runs through January 20.
Harbor Stage is selling copies of Northside Hollow at its performances. Please consider purchasing a copy to build your home library and to further support Massachusetts theatre.