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How Do You Put Ghosts on Stage?
By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Wednesday, November 18, 2015  •  
Wed Nov 18, 2015  •  
Directing  •   0 comments Share This
"It comes across as funny, but it prepares us for that supernatural layer."

The Bachelors' subtle creepiness

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There are ghosts in Caroline V. McGraw's play The Bachelors. Or maybe phantasms. Or maybe poltergeists.

At any rate, there's definitely something supernatural in the show, about three thirtyish ultra-bros who spend a night in their fleabag house deciding how to deal with their girlfriends, crushes, and obsessions. As the man-children enact straight boy rituals like drinking to conceal their pain and wrestling each other instead of talking about their feelings, a violent force enters their space. It slams doors, makes the lights go strange, and seems especially responsive to the men's dark confessions about their recent behavior.

So what is it, exactly? Is it the manifestation of their misogyny? Or perhaps an astral projection of the women in their lives? Or is it possible the raging frat party across the street has somehow unleashed a succubus into the night?

Those questions wriggle through Lesser America's production of the play, which runs through November 29 at Rattlestick. And director Portia Krieger has answers, even if she isn't planning to share them.

"What I've learned – and am sort of always learning – about strangeness in plays is that it's mandatory that there be absolute rigor amongst the company in articulating what it means to us," she says. "Because otherwise, how do you make the decisions about how to play it and how to design it? If you have a specific story you're trying to tell, the decisions become much clearer."

But that doesn't mean the audience has to know how she defines the eerie force. The point is we can sense the clarity of purpose, even if we still have to make our own decisions about what The Bachelors means. "If those details aren't there, then I don't think there's a way to tell the right kind of ambiguous story," Krieger says. "If you plug into a lot of details, then it lets people read their own thing into it. And if you don't plug into the details, then it just feels like mush."

So where does that detail work begin? Krieger says, "What that means practically, for me, is close attention to language. That tends to be the first step. If you can teach the audience that the play has a certain sound and rhythm, then I think that sets them up in order to be ready to deal with that other layer."

Take Kevlar, the sweetest and most innocent of the three dudes. He begins the show blind drunk and freaking out because his long-time girlfriend has not only told him she has cancer, but also announced she wants to sleep with other people while she still can. After he wakes up from a nap on the floor, Kevlar discusses all this in a charmingly goofy stream of consciousness, but if you listen closely to Blake DeLong's performance, you'll notice moments when his energy changes. He occasionally gets less manic and more pointed, sharpening the force of certain speeches.

This is no accident. "He talks about his ex-girlfriend in a way that is absolutely supernatural," Krieger explains. "He says she has magical powers. He says she's a harpy. He says her ponytail holders might be enchanted and come attack him. In the context of the moment – and for me, on first read – it comes across as funny. But it also prepares us for that supernatural layer." (She points to Annie Baker's similarly unsettling drama John as a recent show that mastered this approach.)

More layers came in technical rehearsals, when the team decided how creepy to make the design cues. "The lighting designer [Masha Tsimring] and I started in this realistic place, and we got very into the logic of, 'Who's going to turn this light on when?'" Krieger recalls. "I kept saying, 'I feel like an idiot!' because I kept thinking we had set this up correctly to seem real, and then two pages later we would need something that seemed very different. And [Masha] just said, 'Well, Portia, it's not a realistic play. It starts and makes you think it's a realistic play, but then it isn't.'"

In other words, even when all hell breake loose, McGraw's script is designed to tantalize, not bludgeon. "We're constantly walking this line with the cast and the design of when we're doing mumblecore and when we're doing Hitchcock," the director says. "Something that I love about the play is that it contains both of those things."

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TDF Members: At press time, we were offering discounted tickets to The Bachelors. Click here to see all our available shows.

Follow Mark Blankenship at @IAmBlankenship. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Photo by Stacey Abeles. Pictured: Blake DeLong (left) and Babak Tafti.




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